Sha’Carri Richardson’s Eugene flop suggests a case of too much too soon

Mujinga Kambundji. Javianne Oliver. Barbara Pierre. They are but a sampling of the women who have brought up the rear in the 100m dash at the Prefontaine Classic in recent years. If those names are news to you, it’s probably because the TV networks tend not to go out of their way to spotlight the biggest losers.

The notable exception of course came during last Saturday’s edition of the Pre, a hotly anticipated Diamond League showcase that would mark the return of Sha’Carri Richardson from a monthlong, THC-triggered drug suspension that cost her a spot in the 2020 Olympics – and on the same Hayward Field where she stole hearts from Eugene to Yokohama after clocking a 10.86 to win the US trials. What’s more, Richardson would be going toe-to-toe with Elaine Thompson-Herah, Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce and Shericka Jackson – the fearsome Jamaican trio that locked out the 100m podium in Tokyo.

So this was a heavyweight exhibition, the rare women’s sprint race that completely overshadows the men’s. And Richardson would do more than her part to stoke the hype through snarky tweets, a Nicki Minaj-inspired TikTok video, and an acrylic nail-tapping Nike advert scored to Aretha Franklin’s ‘Young, Gifted and Black’ that ran moments before the starting gun. (“If you need me,” Richardson says in the spot, “I’ll be at the finish line, waiting.”) In a pre-race news conference with the three Jamaicans, Richardson came out swinging like a prizefighter at a weigh-in. “I’m not starstruck,” she said with a giggle.

In the end the world was left dumbstruck. Racing in Lane 5, center stage on the track, Richardson finished ninth out of nine sprinters with a time of 11.14. Behind her aforementioned compatriot Oliver and the Switzerland-born Kambundji – who took sixth and seventh, respectively. Behind former Texas Longhorn Teahna Daniels, who came in fourth. And well behind the three Jamaicans, who locked out the podium again in exactly the same order they did in Tokyo.

Any one of those podium-finishers would’ve been a deserving post-race interview – not least Thompson-Herah, whose winning, windless 10.54 time was five-hundredths off of Flo-Jo’s mountainous all-time mark. But instead NBC – in a heat to prove its bungled Olympics coverage was no fluke, apparently – zeroed in on Richardson, and she unraveled on live TV. “Talk all the shit you want,” she said, chopping the air with her hands when she wasn’t giggling more. “I’m the sixth-fastest woman in this game, ever. And can’t nobody ever take that from me.”

Not surprisingly, Richardson’s invitation to ridicule was swiftly taken up on social media by rafts of pot-clapping Jamaicans; they were too delighted to point out that Richardson’s 11.14 time wouldn’t have medaled at Champs and post memes of Fraser-Pryce breezing past Richardson in the background while shooting NBC’s camera a playful glance that seemed to say Is this your queen? Even Minaj had to pile on.

Not long thereafter Richardson deepened the embarrassment by pulling out of the 200m. While her peers continue to push one another this week at the next Diamond League stop in Lausanne, Richardson has retreated to social media, where she continued to urge on her haters after liking a post disparaging Jamaica as a nation of barefoot coconut eaters. Which is to say, this person doesn’t much resemble the one who appeared on the Today show in the wake of her drug suspension, owned up to her transgression and committed to “heal myself”.

Still: Not even those missteps much dented empathy for Richardson at home – particularly among Black observers who saw her as yet another Black woman who is getting torn down for being too authentic. (Never mind the eight Black women who finished ahead of her, or the audacity of this “uplift our queen” argument coming from guys like the rapper Tory Lanez – the same guy who shot ex-girlfriend Megan Thee Stallion in the foot barely a year ago.

Richardson even had Allyson Felix in her corner. “She’s obviously been through so much, and I hope that she’s supported,” she said during a Jimmy Kimmel Live! appearance on Monday. “She has a great personality, and she’s brought a lot of attention to the sport.” But Richardson wasn’t having any of the 11-time Olympic medalist’s flattery. “Encouraging words on TV shows are just as real as well nothing at all,” was how she captioned an Instagram story two days later.

It’s one thing not to be cowed by a nation that takes track more seriously than Americans take anything. It’s another to attack Felix; in addition to being a fellow American and the most decorated track and field athlete ever, she is also one of the one kindest, most sincere people in all of sports. That Richardson could read Felix’s remarks as shady makes you wonder if maybe all this notoriety is a little too much too soon.

It bears reminding: Most of us met Richardson in Eugene not long after she lost her biological mother, a persistent modifier that suggests a complicated relationship. On top of that, she had to grapple with the public embarrassment of losing out on her Olympic dream because of the bad choice she made to cope with a personal nightmare. Her perseverance through it all is what won her so much support in the first place.

But after Richardson’s Richie Tenenbaum-like meltdown on and off the track, it’s fair to wonder whether Richardson still has more healing to do. It’s fair to wonder how much training she did for a comeback that mainly she gassed up. (“You told us to watch out,” said NBC track analyst Sanya Richards-Ross, “and there was nothing to watch for.”) And it’s fair to wonder if Richardson might be missing her moment.

Sure, she’s 21. But Thompson-Herah, who should be the story here, is doing Usain Bolt-type things on the track. For all we know, the Olympic golden girl might have set the fastest legitimate time in the 100m last week. Fraser-Pryce, arguably the greatest female sprinter of all time, just clocked a 10.60 in the 100m field at age 34 while dusting a Lausanne field that included Thompson-Herah. Shericka Jackson, who finished third again in Lausanne, is a 400m specialist posing as a 100m sprinter at this point. Briana Williams, who finished steps ahead of Richardson in Eugene, is 19. Tina Clayton, a 17-year-old high schooler, just ran a personal-best 11.09 at the Under-20 Championships in Nairobi. And those are the Jamaicans we know.

Yes, Richardson has done some historic things on the track, and sixth-fastest all-time is certainly nothing to sneeze at. But it takes discipline to do that on a big stage like the Olympics, in a medal-winning effort – and this summer Richardson hasn’t shown much discipline on or off the track. And if she doesn’t get a grip fast, forget one-hit wonder. It’s fair to wonder whether she’ll be remembered more for running her mouth than running at all.

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