Can Weed and Pro Sports Coexist? Episode 3 of The Deep Dive

Attitudes toward cannabis have changed dramatically over the past couple of decades, but less so for professional athletes

An image of Alex Cyr with the words "The Deep Dive" in the upper left corner.

SUBSCRIBE: Mountainsspotify icon Stitcher radio

SHOW NOTES:

SOURCES USED IN THIS EPISODE

The music for this episode is a licensed version of “This Podcast Theme” by InPlus Music. Additional music are licensed versions of “Stay Cool” by Loops Lab, and “Podcast Intro” by InPlus Music.

LINKS MENTIONED IN THIS EPISODE:

TRANSCRIPT:

SHEENA ROSSITER: Welcome to Deep Dive from The Walrus, a weekly podcast that takes a deeper look into the happenings at The Walrus. I’m Sheena Rossiter

ANGELA MISRI: And I’m Angela Misri

On this week’s episode we’re talking about sports (not my forte) but also not in the way that you would expect.

ALEX CYR: Governments and sport bodies alike are trying to decide whether or not their athletes should be allowed to consume cannabis. And, just lately, we’ve had some examples of things happening that make us say, wait, should we allow athletes to consume weed or have weed their systems?

SHEENA ROSSITER: That’s this week’s guest Alex Cyr. And he’ll be talking about his latest article for The Walrus which looks at how the world of sport is coming to terms with the legalization of cannabis.

He’s a freelance writer whose work appears in the Globe and Mail, The Walrus, and Toronto Life.

ANGELA MISRI: With the 2022 Winter Olympics about to kick off in Beijing, do you think this issue will be top of mind for athletes there and for viewers?

SHEENA ROSSITER: Well Angela,in true form before any Olympic games starts, there are always lots of buzz and stories in the media about how the games will go. Usually they are overwhelmingly negative. And these games have been marred by controversy from the strict COVID protocols that are in place, to concerns over China’s human rights record. But, so far, the prospect of athletes testing positive for marijuana hasn’t been an issue that has been talked about yet, but that very well could change once competition starts and athletes start to go through drug testing.

ANGELA MISRI: Sounds interesting. Let’s check out your conversation with Alex Cyr about sports reconciling its relationship with weed.

SHEENA ROSSITER: Thanks so much for joining us today, Alex.

ALEX CYR: Hi Sheena.

SHEENA ROSSITER: So we’re just days away from the Olympics kicking off in Beijing, China, and you’ve kind of touched on this topic that’s been a little bit taboo in the world of sports for a while. Can you tell us a little bit about how the world of sports is reconciling or making up its mind about what cannabis is and how it will work in their world?

ALEX CYR: Well, I think the conversation is reaching a fever pitch for a few different reasons. So obviously we know for years now, governments and sport bodies alike are trying to decide whether or not their athletes should be allowed to consume cannabis. And just lately we’ve had some examples of things happening that make us say, wait, should we allow athletes to consume weed or have weed their systems? Obviously we’re thinking of last summer in 2021, when Sha’Carri Richardson tested positive for, like traces of marijuana, which ended up banning her from the Tokyo games and Richardson, obviously being one of the top sprinters in the world who probably would’ve elevated the competition in Tokyo. You look at the media, you got Seth Rogan, like you have Joe Biden. Like you have people from all types of political creeds weighing in on the issue and thinking: “geez, should we really ban athletes from consuming weed?” And then, even more recently, the Olympics have announced that they’re going to reevaluate their policy around weed. Right now it’s a no weed in competition policy. So in 2022, it’ll be reevaluated. So obviously with the Olympics coming up, it’s bringing the conversation to the forefront. Once again.

AUDIO CLIP: American sprinter Sha’Carri Richardson, uh, Olympic dreams were thrown into chaos in the last day because she tested positive for marijuana.

AUDIO CLIP (SHA’CARRI RICHARDSON): The greatness in me is not on anybody’s pace. It’s not on social media’s pace. It’s not on my pace. It’s not on, it’s not on the hater’s pace. It’s on God’s pace. Okay.

SHEENA ROSSITER: Well, it’s so interesting that you mentioned that about Sha’Carri Richardson because, after that whole debacle in the summer, she hasn’t quite fully recovered, and hasn’t been running at the same pace that she was running at before. How does that do something psychological to her?

ALEX CYR: Well, of course, I mean, Sha’Carri, you’re looking at an athlete barely older than 20-years-old. And an athlete who’s had such a quick rise to fame. She did so well so early in her career being on such a high and then completely missing out on the games for a reason that she probably never really anticipated, has to be really hard on somebody. It’s taken some time for Sha’Carri Richardson to regroup and come back. And we’re hoping to see her back on the scene when outdoor track does. But I think she’s an example of what happens when an athlete gets caught with something that they might not even have realized that is not allowed and frowned upon.

SHEENA ROSSITER: The Olympics are about to start. How will it impact this year’s competition?

ALEX CYR: I think as of now, it’s still status quo. So say an athlete tests positive for marijuana. Chances are that it’s not going to go well for them. They could miss out on their competition and the reason as to why the Olympics continue to ban weed and sport. If we’re starting to see more and more that in the science, it doesn’t really seem like it’s impacting performance, right?

SHEENA ROSSITER: Going forward past 2022, when they start to look at this again and they start to look at it a bit more, how is it going to work when weed and marijuana isn’t legal all over the world?

ALEX CYR: Well, that’s something that remains to be seen. I think right now, what athletes are trying to do is they’re trying first to understand what the policy is at the Olympics. And as of now, it’s still in line with what the policy at the world anti-doping agency is. The world anti-doping agency has a list of substances that they consider banned called the prohibited list. It’s known colloquially in some circles as the code. And there are three criteria that they follow to decide if a substance should belong in the code or not. So the first one being, if it enhances performance or not. The second one being, if it might be detrimental to an athlete’s health, and the third one being whether or not it violates the spirit of sport, which is say a combination of somewhat nebulous concepts that seem to like abide with what sports are supposed to be say ethically or morally.

So does it abide to fair play? Does it abide to honesty? Like those kinds of things. So already that is a bit tough to take a compound and decide how ethical it is, let’s say. And so you take those three guidelines and weed seems to fall into a grey area for all of them. We’re not quite sure if it enhances performance, there aren’t enough answers to make a decision. And also when it comes to the health of athletes, the jury’s kind of out there too, because we know that for, say, young people, perhaps not very good for brain development, but for an adult to consume marijuana, you could make an argument that it isn’t that bad for you. And that some compounds that are not banned might be worse for you. Like say alcohol, for example, that’s an argument you could have.

SHEENA ROSSITER: Well, that is true. There have been reports, lately talking about stronger warning labels potentially going on alcohol, at least here in Canada.

ALEX CYR: Absolutely. And even if you want to take it further, you know, there’s no ban on cigarettes in sports. And even in some sports it’s been championed for a long time, like think tobacco and baseball, of course less so now, but for a long time, those two things almost appeared synonymous.

SHEENA ROSSITER: Now we can’t get into this episode of The Deep Dive and not talk about the person who really ignited marijuana in sport, especially at the Olympics, especially at the winter Olympics. And you know who I’m talking about.

AUDIO CLIP: To skiing now to the Olympics, Ross Rebagliati got his gold medal back today. And he is styling. After a tense 24 hour waiting period, following the COA appeal of Rebagliati’s DQ for testing positive for marijuana, the arbitration board, it handed down it’s ruling early this morning.

AUDIO CLIP: The medal has been awarded up to Ross decision has been overturned.

SHEENA ROSSITER: You got to interview him for this article. Can you tell us a little bit about that interview and what’s his take on everything?

ALEX CYR: Well, yeah, that was exactly my thought. When I started writing. It almost was that this piece can’t exist without speaking with Ross. So, for those of you who were around in 1998, you probably remember Ross Rebagliati. He was a BC snowboarder, a giant slalom snowboarder who went to the Nagano Olympics for Canada, and won the gold medal. And it was a huge moment. You know, Ross was 26 at the time, which funny enough when we were chatting, that’s my age right now. So, you know, we, we got to talk about what it would be like to be 26 and win the Olympic gold. It, it would just be such a high, I could just imagine putting myself in his shoes. And then he gets a bunch of interviews. He’s this blonde smiling kid. And within hours of winning the gold medal, he is told that he tested positive for marijuana.

AUDIO CLIP: The results of the testing of sample A revealed the presence of marijuana metabolite.

ALEX CYR: And because he’s in Japan, where marijuana’s illegal, he’s not only stripped of his medal, but he’s tossed inside a Japanese jail. And so he’s waiting there finding out if a, can he get out and go back home and B what’s going to happen to his medal. Now, luckily the Canadian Olympic committee busted him out of the jail. They appealed the decision and the Olympics reinstated his victory, his medal, and he got to go home. At the Olympics, what happened after that is they, they stipulated a anti-weed rule or say, they call it colloquially the, the Ross rule. And so since then they realized, well, we probably shouldn’t allow our athletes to consume marijuana, but there wasn’t a blueprint before him. So that changed a lot with the Olympics and for us, right. Ross comes back home and he’s somewhat of a celebrity. He gets to go in Jay Leno.

AUDIO CLIP (JAY LENO): Last week. My first, yes, when a gold medal in giant slalom snowboarding, the first ever in the Olympics, uh, he was disqualified after testing positive for marijuana, but his, uh, home country of Canada appealed the decision he won. And he’s here now to tell us all about us, please welcome Ross Rebagliati.

ALEX CYR: Everyone knows him as the Olympic champion, who’s also kind of a good time. And so I think it was a pretty special year for him, but talking to him 23 years later, he had a bit of a different take on it, right? Because after all of those celebrations, it was tough for him to gain the respect of a certain sector of the sport population, because it’s not everyone who was back then willing to accept that a world class athlete can also enjoy smoking weed. And I think as years went by, it became more and more accepted. But, you know, he struggled in that time, he struggled to find sponsorships like think of a Nike sponsorship, Nike didn’t condone weed, smoking it lately. They seemed to change their position a little bit because they were Sha’Carri, Richards and sponsors and they seemed to back her up.

So, you know, they’re an example of companies evolving with the times, but for Ross back then, it was quite difficult to be taken seriously by some people and even worse. Some people really didn’t like him. Didn’t like the idea of him. So chatting with him, it was really something, he was at a time happy to see that our society was evolving. That, well, obviously the big ones that weed was made legal in Canada in 2018, but also a bit frustrated about the fact that it didn’t happen years ago. There was almost a quality of, like I told you guys, it’s not so bad.

SHEENA ROSSITER: I remember exactly when all this happened in 1998 in Nagano. There was some pretty serious fallout. He failed to get some sponsorship after the Olympics, but then he kind of came out of a shell a couple years later and he opened a pot shop called Ross’ gold in Kelowna. And now he’s quite an advocate for marijuana and legalized cannabis. Why did he choose to become an advocate after the fact? And was it because he was struggling in those early days with the stigma that was around marijuana?

ALEX CYR: Well, I think it actually came before then. Even people who’d don’t respect Ross’s opinion need to respect about him is that he never steered away from the thing that he believed in, which was that you can consume marijuana on a healthy basis. And so he was an advocate for it a while ago. And Ross’s gold itself was created in the early 2010s. And he was trying to like start a weed dispensary. And it wasn’t obvious, really hard to do back then, at one point he was selling some products that had gotten Chong from Cheech and Chong in jail for possession. He was straddling to line, but always with the intention of trying to provide an alternative to perhaps more harmful substances, because weed was something that he had lived with for a while, and that he knew how to use properly. I think he was trying to do it from a certainly a responsible angle.

SHEENA ROSSITER: The stigma has changed over the years. 1998 doesn’t seem like it was that long ago, but in the world of marijuana legalization, that was quite a while ago. And we’ve come quite a long way since then. So now what’s the stigma for athletes around marijuana in terms of how open they can be about smoking it?

ALEX CYR: I think it’s just trying to reconcile with the part of the population that still sees it as drugs. When you lump it into a category like that, it’s difficult to shed the stigma and an athlete will try to be marketable and gain sponsors. And of course, like anything, if you stake your position somewhere, you might get the affirmation from a certain group and not from another. And I think that the big dominant companies out there might still not be that keen to sponsor a high level athlete who endorses marijuana. There are some now, right? Just last year, Kevin Durant, one of the top athletes in the world literally signed a deal with weed maps. And that made him the first athlete from a big four sport. So NBA, NHL, NFL, and MLB to sign like a big weed contract. So it is changing. I think you can find deals now, but I also think that a part of the issue is trying to get perhaps your people and your surroundings on board.

SHEENA ROSSITER: Do you see that there’s potential opportunities for sponsors for these athletes, like Kevin Durant, in the future?

ALEX CYR: I think it is changing. And I think it follows legalization because for as long as some countries completely ban, and if most countries were to completely ban it well, then it’s difficult for a company to come out and endorse it. But as Canada now has it legalized and an increasing amount of states are doing the same. I can’t see why it wouldn’t follow. I think the other driving force, or perhaps a force that may push against it eventually is what’s the science going to say? And the science is going to be motivated by legalization. Like I talked to Dennis Jensen, who is one of the top exercise physiologists who researches cannabis in Canada and likely the world. And he was talking about how difficult it had been to secure funding for research around cannabis and sport. Now, if it becomes legal well, then that becomes easier. And then we have a more definite answer of, is it beneficial for performance? Does it hurt performance? And then we can move forward because we know more.

SHEENA ROSSITER: Could there be a huge business opportunity in the future for professional athletes and cannabis companies alike?

ALEX CYR: Possibly. Look at how lucrative alcohol sponsorships have been. And for that, it took time to remove ourselves from prohibition and have it seep into the consciousness of sports. I can’t see why the same thing couldn’t happen with cannabis down the line. I just think it might take time.

SHEENA ROSSITER: Now let’s find out what Alex is watching right now.

ALEX CYR: I hacked onto my girlfriend’s Disney+ account yesterday and watched Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. I actually didn’t grow up with superhero movies. My child was dominated by Pokemon and eventually sports. So I am discovering the genre as a 26 year old and I’m loving it. I was actually drawn to this movie because of the main actor Simu Liu, who’s Canadian and who started in Kim’s Convenience, a comedy on Netflix that I really liked. And the whole movie has this huge background story in like portal into an alternate world, but also is filled with jokes about the world we know, and its grievances. Many of the movies, I like straddle the line between sci-fi and just boring everyday life. And I think maybe that’s a reflection of how boring our world can get lately. And so the idea of like, Hey, what if this crazy thing happened on earth? What if we found a real world of Ta Lo some mountain in Asia? Or what if we found 10 magic rings in Macau? It’s a particularly fun, uh, thought experiment right now.

SHEENA ROSSITER: Alex, thanks so much for taking the time to speak with us on The Deep Dive today.

ALEX CYR: It’s been a pleasure. Thank you Sheena for having me.

SHEENA ROSSITER: That’s my conversation with Alex Cyr. The handling editor for his story is Harley Rustad. Go to the walrus.ca to get your fill on more sports stories from a recent digital series For the Love of the Game, which explores the world of sports fandom and keep an eye out for Alex’s article in the podcast show notes.

WHAT WE’RE TALKING ABOUT THIS WEEK AT THE WALRUS:

HARLEY RUSTAD: I’m Harley Rustad, and here’s what we’ve been talking about this week at The Walrus.

The caravan of trucks and the protest in Ottawa is all over social media, and our own Slack channel at The Walrus. The photos of flags with swastikas on them brought to mind the illustration Franziska Barczyk created for Ira Well’s article, “Punching Nazis Won’t End Fascism,” a story that has renewed relevance.

Speaking of protests, Neil Young’s stance against Spotify also made the rounds in our virtual office, along with discussions about the alternatives to the music streaming software and for those of us old enough to remember, the history of sharing and listening to music. We have a piece in development right now on the rise and fall of MuchMusic.

And February marks the beginning of Black History month, so we would be remiss not to mention some of our recent and more evergreen content. Go to thewalrus.ca slash blackhistory to read, watch and listen to more. Our latest story from Sarah Raughley is about the macabre windfall for Black creators in the wake of Derek Chauvin’s trial verdict.

As always, the links for all these articles can be found in the show notes for this episode.

CREDITS:

SHEENA ROSSITER: Thanks for joining us on this week’s episode of the Deep Dive. It was produced by Angela Misri, and me, Sheena Rossiter. Shayne Giles edited this episode.

Thanks so much to Alex Cyr for joining us this week.

Music for this podcast is provided by Audio Jungle. Our theme song is This Podcast Theme by Inplus Music. Additional music is Stay Cool by Loops Lab, Podcast Intro by Inplus Music, and Unreleased Demo, provided by Pixabay.
Additional audio clips come from TSN, TheYoungTurks, the IOC, Leno, and Lets Run Dot Com on Youtube. Don’t forget to subscribe to Deep Dive from The Walrus on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. And if you like what you heard, please leave us a review and rating. It really helps people find the podcast.

Until next week when we take our next deep dive.

The Walrus Staff

Join our community

Dear Readers,

For years, experts have raised the alarm about political polarization. It’s been said the left and right can’t talk to each other. Blame the political climate. Blame the rise of tech platforms and social media algorithms. But we don’t talk enough about the difference in the quality of the information that we receive and share.

As more and more media outlets die and as parts of Canada become “news deserts,” there are two types of citizens emerging: those with access to high-quality, fact-based journalism, like the kind you’ll find in The Walrus, and those without it.

One thing all reliable media outlets have in common: it takes time and adequate funding to produce good journalism.

If you like reading The Walrus, we ask that you consider becoming a monthly supporter. Your donation helps us keep The Walrus’s fact-checked online journalism free to all.

Jessica Johnson
Sincerely,
Jessica Johnson
Editor-in-Chief