The US sprinter is one of the most divisive personalities in athletics but, like it or not, the world 100m champion is brilliant for athletics, writes Ben Bloom

Sha’Carri Richardson is bold, brash and confident. She is outspoken, controversial and, at times, outright rude. She is flashy and colourful. She is impossible to ignore. She is fiercely proud of her roots and everything she represents. She is fascinating. She is divisive. And she is brilliant for athletics.

Richardson splits opinion like few other athletes, and for much of her career there has been good reason for people who might feel inclined to ignore a runner whose headlines were gained more for the words that came out of her mouth than the medals she produced on the track.

But she is now the world 100m champion and a three-time world medallist. She is going nowhere and – support her or not – she commands attention.

Sport thrives on goodies and baddies. That Richardson can simultaneously be both to different people is what makes her so compelling. She makes people want to watch. She makes people take an interest. She puts athletics in the spotlight.

Sha’Carri Richardson (Getty)

She is fast and has been for some time. On one day in 2019, she broke (although ultimately unratified) both the 100m and 200m world under-20 records, bettering compatriot Allyson Felix’s mark in the longer event. It is difficult to imagine a bigger shift from Felix’s decorum and poise to Richardson’s upfront assertiveness.

She turned professional, she won the US trials for the Tokyo Olympics, she lowered her 100m personal best to a rapid 10.72 seconds. And then she tested positive for marijuana.

She conducted a live television interview (that she now understandably regrets) where a vulnerable, emotional, suffering young woman explained that she had turned to the non-performance-enhancing drug to cope with the death of her biological but estranged mother. She had learned of that death from another reporter, explaining that “to hear that information coming from a complete stranger, it was definitely triggering”.

She should never have been put in the position of discussing the most painful parts of her difficult family history in front of a live television camera. She was worryingly ill advised when she needed a comforting arm.

Instead, she was controversially banned for one month, making her ineligible to compete at the Tokyo Games. She felt angry, embittered and wronged.

She has long harboured a sense of herself against the world – it fuels her and drives her. She often calls out her “haters”, whether real or imagined.

World 100m medallists in Budapest (Getty)

She – either intentionally or inadvertently – created a rivalry with the best Jamaican sprinters. After the Jamaican 100m Olympic podium clean sweep in Tokyo, she took part in a Nike advert to promote the 2021 Prefontaine Classic where she was due to face them all.

She tapped her ultra-long nails on a table, saying: “I’ve been waiting. Patiently waiting. Waiting to show y’all that I’m no one-hit wonder. Waiting to show y’all it’s not what I’ve done, but what I’m about to do. Waiting to show y’all that I’m more than a news headline. Waiting to show y’all why I’m that girl. And if you need me, I’ll be at the finish line… waiting.”

She was never going to slip quietly back into the field; she would shout about her return from the rooftops. She was hyping herself to the maximum, getting people talking about the sport. That is what she does: gets people talking.

She finished last. She was not even in the frame as the Jamaican trio of Elaine Thompson-Herah, Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce and Shericka Jackson swept the board once again.

While the Jamaicans congratulated one another, Richardson was the first to conduct a post-race interview: “I’m not upset at myself at all. This is one race. I’m not done. You know what I’m capable of. Count me out if you want to, talk all the s*** you want because I’m here to stay. I’m not done. I’m the sixth-fastest woman in this game, ever. Can’t nobody ever take that from me.”

Sha’Carri Richardson (Getty)

She came across as arrogant and disrespectful. A year later, she failed to make the 100m and 200m finals at the US trials for the 2022 World Championships. When asked by an American journalist about the turnaround from that low to winning a world title in Hungary last month, she attributed it to “blocking out the noise, blocking out media like yourself and just continuing to go forward”.

Richardson against the media. Richardson against the haters. Richardson against the world.

Earlier this year, she was thrown off a plane after arguing with a flight attendant over a pre-flight video she was recording. As various passengers cheered in celebration of her ejection, she pointed at some of them. “You’re fat,” she said to one. “I’m still a superstar, you’re a regular person,” she said to another. “I can get a private plane, dumbass.”

She attracted cameras at the World Championships in Budapest like a shiny object luring magpies. She clocked 10.92 seconds in the 100m heats, despite easing up to wipe imaginary sweat from her brow metres from the finish line. Then she sat in the blocks for so long in the semi-final that she only advanced as a fastest loser (albeit quicker than six other eventual finalists).

Sha’Carri Richardson (Getty)

She was given the far outside lane nine for the final – the ideal location to suit her embattled, besieged mentality – and flew to victory in a championship record of 10.65.

Afterwards, she said: “I was by myself in my own world, which honestly has been like that all my life. I’ve always been in my own world, my own element, so lane nine was perfect.”

She refused to talk to some members of the media, spoke to others and chastised a few. She elicited questions from some journalists that sounded more like eulogies. She appeared softer and more rounded than at points in the past, offering kind words of respect for her Jamaican foes. She cried at her medal ceremony. Then she won 200m bronze and anchored a US women’s 4x100m team apparently beset by infighting to gold.

She is not to everyone’s taste, but she is impossible to ignore. In a modern world where every sport is fighting for publicity, she is a gift to athletics. Not only is she an incredibly fast runner, but she is box office. As she told that person on the plane, she is a superstar. Superstars make people care. 

» This article first appeared in the September issue of AW magazine

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