Brianna McNeal, who won gold in the women’s 100-meter hurdles at the 2016 Summer Olympics, received a five-year ban for violating anti-doping rules (306273)
Credit: IAAF photo

The case of Brianna McNeal is a glaring illustration of the flawed application of power. For now, her career as one of the best hurdlers in the world is in peril, stripped by a deliberative body whose punishment doesn’t fit the totality of her transgressions.

McNeal, 29, the women’s 100-meter hurdles gold medalist at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Brazil, received a five-year ban from the Athletics Integrity Unit, an independent organization established by World Athletics, formerly named the International Association of Athletics Federations, which governs the sport of track and field.

She was handed the harsh penalty for committing an anti-doping violation. No, McNeal did not test positive for an illegal performance enhancement substance. The Clemson University graduate, charged by the AIU with “tampering within the results management process,” was issued a theoretical lifetime sentence for altering the dates on her medical report submitted as evidence to prove she missed a mandatory drug test in January of 2020 as a result of recovering from an abortion.

This past January, McNeal was levied with a provisional suspension by the Monaco-based AIU until a final ruling was determined. In June, after the five-year ban was handed down, the embattled McNeal finished second at the U.S. Olympic trials in the 100-meter hurdles, earning a spot on the team, while her appeal of the suspension was under review. However, last Friday, the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) in Switzerland dismissed McNeal’s appeal.

The decision shelves the Miami native for the Tokyo (Japan) Olympics, set to begin on July 23, as well as the 2024 Paris (France) Olympics. The three-time NCAA hurdles champion put forth that she erroneously changed the date of the abortion on documents verifying the procedure from January 10 to January 11. The doping test was scheduled for January 12. McNeal claimed in an interview with the New York Times that she was home in bed in Northridge, California when a tester reached her residence, but was not cognizant of their arrival, asserting it is why she did not answer her door.

Hours after the CAS’s conclusion was publicly revealed, McNeal posted an impassioned response on her Instagram account. “I sat through two hearings one held in April 2021 and July 2021, and listened to white European men tell me how my experience doesn’t match with their perspective,” she wrote. “They criticized me, and overly judged my decision making, completely ignored the fact I was under physical and mental trauma after undergoing an abortion, and that I was not in the right mental capacity when making certain decisions.”

McNeal has never tested positive for PEDs, but has drawn suspicion for missing three, out-of-competition, random tests in 2016, which the US Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) termed “whereabouts failures,” leading to a ban for the entire 2017 season. In April of 2017, McNeal explained the absences as “my confusion over how the whereabouts program worked.” In eight other drug tests administered to her in 2016, McNeal, who at the time was unmarried and held her maiden name Rollins, was present and passed.

As widespread calls continue to allow the women’s 100-meter Olympic trials winner Sha’Carri Richardson compete in Tokyo after she was suspended for one-month by the USADA for testing positive for marijuana, there is a small chorus of voices advocating for McNeal to have her sentence commuted.

On Tuesday, it was learned that Richardson, who was eligible to compete in the women’s 4×100 meter relay at the Olympics as it will be run after her suspension ends, was not selected to the roster by USA Track & Field. While anti-doping policies are defensible, many of the people charged with enforcing them and subsequently arbitrating cases often fall short of exercising empathy and prudence.