Olympic athletes are familiar with intense health routines. Biohacking, cryogenic chambers and extreme diets may give them a hair’s length advantage that means the difference between gold and silver. In the U.S. and other parts of the globe, social acceptance of cannabis has made its way onto the field and into locker rooms as many athletes experiment with CBD and THC for pain relief and recovery. And in light of mental health issues arising among elite competitors, cannabis may serve a purpose beyond its physical uses.
All of this collides at the Tokyo Olympics as cannabis is front and center on the world stage.
A lot has changed since the infamous 2008 Michael Phelps bong photo. Olympic officials’ stance on THC largely has not. It remains banned. Track phenom Sha’ Carri Richardson’s suspension reminded us of this.
Richardson finished fixing her golden wind-blown hair by the time her competitors crossed the finish line in the Olympic 100-meter trials. Her bold looks and speedy wheels have earned the sprinter a large following. It’s why on July 2, Richardson and her fans’ hearts were broken after the World Anti-doping Agency, which monitors and prevents drug use in the Olympics, issued a 30-day suspension after she failed her drug test for THC after using marijuana the night before the race. No other substances were in her system.
The timing meant she would not be able to compete on the national team. The U.S. was holding out hope that USA Track & Field, the national team’s officials, would select her for the 4X100 relay race, but the stars did not align.
“While USATF fully agrees that the merit of the World Anti-Doping Agency rules related to THC should be reevaluated, it would be detrimental to the integrity of the U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Track & Field if USATF amended its policies following competition, only weeks before the Olympic Games,” USATF said in a statement.
Richardson took responsibility, saying she was aware of the rules and that she’s human, she made a mistake. “I’m you. I just run a little faster,” she said on the Today Show. She explained that the death of her biological mother, which she found out about from a reporter in an interview, led her to use cannabis as a coping mechanism. Through the lens of many Americans, where the vast majority support marijuana legalization and recreational use is legal in 19 states, the suspension seemed outdated and ridiculous.
Fast forward to July 21, another athlete known for colorful hair, soccer gold medalist Megan Rapinoe, discussed how she incorporates CBD into her fitness routine in a Forbes article. While innocuous, the article was a promotional interview for her sister Rachael Rapinoe’s CBD brand Mendi, and the timing of the piece after Richardson’s suspension pissed people off.
The purple-haired forward was met with Twitter backlash. Many said it was hypocritical and racist that a Black athlete is suspended for cannabis while Rapinoe gets praised for using it in recovery.
But there are some technicalities. Rapinoe isn’t the first athlete to promote CBD or cannabis. Both retired and active football players like Terrell Davis, Rob Gronkowski and Brett Favre, gymnast Gabby Douglas, and MMA fighters Nate Diaz and Cris Cyborg advocate for the cannabinoid. (The NFL recently funded CBD for pain research.) In addition, the World Anti-doping Agency took CBD off of the banned substance list in 2018, while THC remains illegal. The major distinction between the two cannabinoids is one is psychoactive and one is not.
In response to the criticism, Rapinoe spoke out about disproportionate cannabis-related arrests of Black people in the United States, as well as the benefits of THC.
“We’re expected to perform on the biggest stages and highest levels, yet we can’t use all-natural products to help us recover,” Rapinoe wrote in a Forbes statement. “It’s not right, and these policies need to be changed to reflect where our culture is.”
However, the Olympics and WADA do not represent just one culture.
The WADA consists of members from around the globe. It might take longer for the organization to come around to cannabis since there are still strict laws in most of the world. The only fully legal countries are Canada and Uruguay.
The group started after cycling lost all credibility with revelations of widespread doping during the Tour de France. The Olympic Committee started the WADA in 1999, in time for the 2000 Sydney Olympics.
WADA bans a drug if it meets two of three criteria: enhances performance, poses a health risk, or violates “the spirit of sport.”
WADA reported in a 2011 paper that “based on current animal and human studies as well as on interviews with athletes and information from the field, cannabis can be performance-enhancing for some athletes and sports disciplines.”
But according to a 2013 journal article Cannabis in Sport, cannabis is a benefit and a impediment. THC can inhibit performance by slowing reaction time and increasing risky behavior. It may also allow athletes to perform better by reducing pain and inflammation and alleviating mental stress.
Incorporating cannabis into mental health routines could serve as a helpful tool for athletes, whose mental game is equally as valuable as their muscle memory or physical ability.
Yesterday, the world’s greatest gymnast Simone Biles dropped out of the all-around team competition and all-around individual competition after a less-than-stellar performance on the vault. Biles said she didn’t want to hurt her team’s chances at earning a medal, and she needs to focus on her mental health. This follows recent news of Japan’s Naomi Osaka, the first No. 1 ranking Asian tennis player, who recently withdrew from the French Open and refused to participate in press conferences for mental health reasons.
Reducing anxiety may be crucial for athletes. It’s why Richardson used it. Many Olympians are in their late teens and early 20s and deal with intense pressure to perform with millions of eyes watching. Not only that, high-profile athletes are subject to criticism, critiques, and insults in real-time on their social media feeds while dealing with their personal lives.
Cannabis as an alternative recovery tool has emerged at the same time as mental health concerns among star athletes. These two shifts within the sports world are more intertwined than separate issues. Cannabis can’t erase the immense stress athletes carry, and it can’t magically heal an injury, but maybe it could help.
“Where I am sitting right now, I can see people sitting and injecting drugs,” says Andrew Warner from his stuffy car in New Hampshire. It’s