One of the bigger stories in the run-up to the Tokyo Olympics – at least before Simone Biles bowed out – was the disqualification of US sprinter Sha’Carri Richardson due to a positive test for marijuana. The US Anti-Doping Agency disallowed her qualifying victory and banned her from the sport for one month. That suspension would end during the Tokyo games, but US Athletics opted to keep her off the team.
Cannabis is now legal in some form in all but a handful of states, and most professional sports leagues have made accommodations to allow its use by their athletes. What’s different about the Olympics?
The prohibition finds its roots in a 2004 list of banned substances compiled by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA). Essentially, a substance is prohibited if it meets any two of these three criteria: harms the health of the athlete; is performance enhancing; is against the spirit of the sport.
In the case of cannabis, most of the debate has centered on the second of those three criteria; that is, whether cannabis is performance enhancing. In defending its stance, WADA notes the role of cannabis in relieving anxiety. Fair enough … a stress-free athlete may indeed perform better.
But cannabis use, at least in the short term, also reduces balance and strength. Therefore, say those opposed to WADA’s prohibition, it couldn’t possibly enhance athletic performance.
WADA notes also that when the list of banned substances was created in 2004, cannabis was still illegal in most parts of the world, bringing to bear that third criterion about violating the spirit of the sport. As recently as 2009, Michael Phelps was suspended for three months (and lost a major sponsorship) when photos him using marijuana surfaced.
There has been a bit of progress, as WADA removed the prohibition on CBD two years ago even though it remains illegal in some participating nations. But with acceptance of both medical and recreational marijuana on the rise worldwide, it’s clearly time to revisit these rules.
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