Athletes Are Getting Burned by Weed Rules. Is the Sports World Out of Touch?

Cannabis attitudes have changed since Ross Rebagliati’s Olympic mishap in 1998, but pro sports remain stuck in the past

An illustration of a snowboarder with cannabis leaves and Olympic rings on their snowboard

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On February 8, 1998, a Canadian snowboarder launched himself down Mount Yakebitai, in Nagano, Japan. He was one of the first athletes to do so at an Olympic Games: snowboarding had just been made an official Olympic sport. The twenty-six-year-old from Vancouver zigzagged his way down the icy slope, wrapping his body around dozens of staggered flags, his torso at times parallel to the ground, and crossed the finish line two hundredths of a second faster than anyone else in the competition. Yet Ross Rebagliati would come to be known not for winning the first ever Olympic gold medal in snowboard giant slalom but for what happened three days later.

Still high on endorphins and with a medal around his neck, Rebagliati was informed that a drug test taken after the race had found traces of cannabis in his urine. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) voted to disqualify him from the competition and strip him of his medal. And, because cannabis is illegal in Japan, he was later confined to a jail in Nagano, unsure of when he would be able to return home. The Canadian Olympic Association (now the Canadian Olympic Committee) and Rebagliati, however, quickly won an appeal to reverse the disqualification, which ruled that the Olympics had no legislation concerning marijuana use in ski and snowboarding sports. The drug was a banned substance for the International Ski Federation but not for the IOC.

Rebagliati was released from jail within hours. His gold medal was reinstated, and he was soon on a plane back to North America, where both celebrity and infamy awaited him. “I really didn’t know what I was walking into when I came back,” says Rebagliati, now fifty.

He had become a superstar overnight: a perpetually smiling blond rebel unwittingly challenging the public conception of what it means to be a world-class athlete. Jim Breuer portrayed him as a stoner in a Saturday Night Live sketch. Sony paid him to put together a compilation disk called FullieDialedInn, which featured hip hop band Cypress Hill. He was a guest on The Tonight Show, where host Jay Leno asked him if he was tired of all the weed jokes before calling him “nickel bag–liati” and patting him on the back. The Vancouverite took it all in stride, laughing coyly and flashing his gold medal on TV. On the surface, he was living the dream. “It was wild. I was hanging out with Dan Aykroyd and supermodels in Soho, New York,” he says. “I almost signed a record deal. . . They can make anybody sing.”

But, for each Rebagliati fan, there was a dissenter—those who believed that athletes should be bastions of purity, role models for children, the peak of society. The contempt, he says, went from mild (fellow celebrities ignoring him at golf tournaments) to intense (death threats mailed to his house). The constant questioning of whether Rebagliati was good for the sport of snowboarding, or for society at large, is part of what led him to retire barely a year after his Olympic victory. “That kind of energy was what eventually broke the camel’s back,” he says. It’s hard to imagine how the story would have played out had social media been around at the time.

Rebagliati longed for vindication and believed it was just a matter of time before cannabis became legalized and destigmatized in Canada. After all, his Olympic victory had come in the wake of Amsterdam’s regulation of marijuana, hashish, and hemp coffee shops as well as, in 1996, California’s decriminalization of cannabis possession (under 28.5 grams) and legalization of medical marijuana. Yet, more than two decades since his rise to celebrity, Rebagliati sees a long road ahead before weed and professional sports can coexist.

The spate of recent laws decriminalizing and legalizing cannabis in several jurisdictions and countries, including Canada in 2018, has pushed the debate over weed in sports to an inflection point. Some major leagues, including the NBA and MLB, have stopped randomly testing their members for cannabis, and many high-profile athletes are advocating for marijuana legalization. Meanwhile, other leagues and sport organizations still maintain zero-tolerance policies for the substance, and cannabis continues to be banned in competition at the Olympics under what the New York Times has called the “Ross rule.”

As the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics approach, the strict rules around weed appear increasingly out of step. Why is the substance still banned in sports at all? Many sport organizations, including international federations and national Olympic committees, follow the prohibited list (known as “the code”) of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) when deciding which substances to consider illicit. To be banned by the code, a substance needs to meet two of the three criteria: it has the potential to enhance performance; it represents a health risk to the athlete; or it violates the “spirit of sport.”

The first criterion was the downfall of history’s best-known drug cheats, Lance Armstrong (erythropoietin) and Ben Johnson (anabolic steroids). While there is some evidence that cannabis can relax muscles and improve breathing for endurance athletes, experts tend to agree that it’s not conclusive enough for a ban. And the idea that the minuscule traces of cannabis in Rebagliati’s blood might have helped him eke out a 0.02 second victory over Italian snowboarder Thomas Prugger in Nagano is preposterous. Three years ago, Dennis Jensen, an exercise physiologist at McGill University, co-wrote a review article that found no indication that cannabis can help sport performance. Jensen says that the body of research, still in its infancy and limited by stigma, is too narrow to produce conclusions about whether cannabis aids performance in any way that warrants regulation. “From what I do know,” he says, “the evidence still really doesn’t exist, but I think the effects of cannabis are underresearched.” Generally, he says, sport committees setting the rules tend to err on the side of safety.

Sport regulators, when making decisions about cannabis, must also consider health risks to athletes, and this is where the substance may cause trouble. Studies have found links between frequent cannabis consumption and impaired short-term memory and learning, altered brain development, and even strokes in young people. Cannabis has also been shown to impair motor function and risk assessment, a potentially deadly combination for a downhill skier, bobsledder, or Formula 1 driver. “Cannabis could potentially take away some of the anxiety in risky sports,” says Jensen, “but we also don’t know much about how recreational use affects balance, hand-eye coordination, reaction time. Say you’re in a boxing match and you smoke up to calm some of that anxiety, but if your reaction time is slower, you can’t get out of the way. . . . What’s the consequence? There is still a lot to learn on that front.”

The hesitance to allow weed in sports primarily hinges on whether cannabis breaches WADA’s third guideline and violates the “spirit of sport,” a comprehensive if nebulous list of ideals and values like health, honesty, “the pursuit of human excellence,” and respect for rules and laws. Cannabis, which is still illegal in many parts of the world, does not necessarily fit the entire description. In a 2001 review article on cannabis prohibition, researchers—including two WADA scientists—wrote, “The international anti-doping community believes that the role model of athletes in modern society is intrinsically incompatible with use or abuse of cannabis.”

The 2021 US Olympic track-and-field trials, however, raised the question of whether banning someone from competition for showing traces of a substance that is not a proven performance- booster was violating some of the spirit of sport’s ideals, such as “fair play.” Last July, American sprinter Sha’Carri Richardson was handed a thirty-day suspension from competition after testing positive for cannabis. The twenty-one-year-old Texan had become a darling of the sprinting world for her unfiltered interviews, colourful hair, and record-breaking 100-metre time—faster than all but five women in history. Richardson was banned from her country’s Olympic trials, which fell inside that thirty-day window, which meant she was forbidden from qualifying for the Olympic Games in Tokyo.

Richardson later admitted to having smoked shortly after learning from a reporter that her biological mother had died. Everyone from NFL quarterback Patrick Mahomes to actor Seth Rogen to congressperson Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez weighed in, pointing to our lack of understanding around cannabis and sports. Even US president Joe Biden questioned Richardson’s ban. “The rules are the rules,” Biden said when asked by reporters. “Whether they should remain that way, whether that should remain the rules, is a different issue.”

Rebagliati paid close attention to Richardson’s saga and came away from it exasperated. The image of athletes who smoke marijuana has remained largely unchanged since 1998. “The best athletes in the movies are always shotgunning beers the night after the big game,” he says. “Weed was always the loser.” It’s possible that negative perceptions around cannabis have their roots in popular discourse from the 1980s and early ’90s, like Nancy Reagan’s “Just say no” anti-drug campaign. Many Gen Xers and millennials likely remember the scathing “This is your brain on drugs” public service announcements, which likened the effects of drugs—including heroin and, more recently, cannabis and MDMA—to an egg crackling on a frying pan.

Or maybe the stigma’s origins come from even earlier. In the 1890s, cannabis was used in Britain to treat everything from tetanus and mental illness—until British Parliament was made aware of an article published in a newspaper in India that claimed that “the lunatic asylums of India are filled with ganja smokers.” Soon afterward, a British MP labelled the compound “the most horrible intoxicant the world has yet produced.” Today, cannabis is still positioned as the slacker drug, the drug of the unstable, or the drug that fries the brain, which does little to sell its appeal to corporate sponsors. If the major brands that financially support sport organizations, including the IOC, would endorse cannabis, perhaps those sporting bodies would be open to a different story about the drug.

There has been some change. In August, Weedmaps, a software provider for the cannabis industry that connects weed users with local dispensaries, made history by signing NBA player Kevin Durant to an endorsement deal, making the thirty-three-year-old small forward the first athlete of a Big Four sport to sign a weed contract. Weedmaps CEO Chris Beals says his company had tried to strike sponsorship deals with athletes of major sports a few times since it launched, in 2008, but struggled to be taken seriously. Some potential partners had appeared more interested in finding out how much the Weedmaps staff smoked and whether they were high at meetings than in actually doing business with them. But Beals believes that societal perceptions of cannabis are evolving and that signing a world-class athlete like Durant will confirm that the world of sports is thinking differently about weed. “I hope people take away that things are changing at an accelerated pace,” he says, “and, if this can happen, why are we relegating the cannabis businesses to the shadows?”

When the media craze following Rebagliati’s Olympic victory died down, he struggled to find steady corporate sponsor as many brands were reticent to associate with him. Until 2019, he mainly found work renovating and flipping homes, operating heavy machinery, and building houses. “I’ve been through hard times,” he says. “I’ve never really had the opportunity to convert my notoriety into any sort of financial success.”

In 2019, Rebagliati turned his attention to his cannabis dispensary business, Ross’Gold, which he had created in 2012. Since legalization, partnerships have been easier to come by, and he says he is consulting with a growing number of emerging weed companies. The talk show appearances have dried up, perhaps because straddling the line between weed and sports today makes him much less of an anomaly. A 2020 analysis of 46,000 elite and university athletes noted that approximately 23 percent had used some form of cannabis in the past year.

There are other changes too. The IOC has raised the legal allowable limit of THC (the main psychoactive component of cannabis) tenfold so as to detect only current—not past—intoxication. In 2018, WADA removed CBD (a less psychoactive component of cannabis) from its prohibited list. And, last September, the Washington Post reported that WADA is planning to review its stance on cannabis use in 2022 “following receipt of requests from a number of stakeholders.”

Rebagliati wishes this slow vindication had come sooner, but he is happy to gradually shed the status of punch line. He is still waiting for the day when athletes can smoke a joint as shamelessly and inconsequentially as they can drink a beer. Last summer, he tried to open a bank account for Ross’Gold at one of Canada’s main banks. He says his application was denied. “They literally were like, ‘Next time you come, make it a numbered company, make sure no cheque says weed on it,’” Rebagliati says. “So there it is. That’s today’s world. This is where we’re at.”

Alex Cyr
Alex Cyr has written for the Globe and Mail and the Literary Review of Canada. He is the author of Runners of the Nish: A Season in the Sun, Rain, Hail and Hell.