A trailblazer, 16 years later: Canadian snowboarder Ross Rebagliati tested positive for trace amounts of THC and was stripped of a gold medal in 1998, then won it back on appeal.Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP
SOCHI, Russia — Sixteen years after Canadian snowboarder Ross Rebagliati won, lost and ultimately regained an Olympic gold medal (on appeal) after a lab found traces of marijuana metabolites in his urine sample, athletes are still forbidden to “smoke a fatty for Rebagliati” in Sochi because marijuana use remains prohibited during competition.
But 2014 marks the first Olympics since then in which athletes don’t have to fret as much about testing positive for small concentrations of THC that overstay their welcome after out-of-competition use, which is not prohibited, or from standing in someone else’s cannabis cloud.
In May 2013, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) raised the in-competition threshold for marijuana tenfold, to 150 nanograms per milliliter. The move is in line with evolving views toward marijuana across the United States and the rest of the world.
Colorado and Washington have legalized the drug altogether, and some 20 states, plus Washington, D.C., allow medical marijuana use. Uruguay became the first country in the world to legalize it, and Mexico City is mulling a pair of bills to decriminalize pot. And while weed remains illegal in the U.S., Barack Obama’s administration issued rules this month allowing banks to do business with state-licensed marijuana companies — something they had been wary of for fear of breaking federal law.
Given the complexities of the WADA code and the daily rigors of complying with it, athletes are encouraged to be vigilant about keeping up with the rules.
It was surprising, then, that a small random sample of athletes interviewed between periods of Saturday’s USA-Russia hockey game were unaware of last year’s news.
Keri Herman, who placed 10th in slopestyle skiing for the U.S., said after being briefed that the new limit “doesn’t matter personally. I don’t smoke weed. I don’t see it as enhancing anyone’s athletic ability.”
Similarly, Norwegian hockey goalie Lars Volden said, “I don’t care” that WADA raised the roof on pot levels permitted in Sochi. He did, however, believe it should remain banned during competition. “It’s not a good thing, for sure,” he said. “But I’ve never tried it.”
Meanwhile, 19-year-old U.S. figure skater Jason Brown was simply more attentive to other parts of the code. “I focus on what I’m taking and if it’s approved,” said Brown, who helped the U.S. earn a bronze medal in the team event before placing ninth individually on Friday.
“I’ve never done it. I don’t think anyone should do it. I’m for clean play,” he said. “But if the (new threshold) makes it more fair, then I’m totally in support. It’s just not my lifestyle to take it or be around it.”
“It’s interesting for us, though, having moved from Chicago to Colorado, where there’s a green cross on every building,” said Brown’s coach Korie Ade, referring to dispensaries.
“My parents were hippies. My dad grows it,” Ade said. “But I can’t really see why anyone needs it for athletic purposes. If you can’t take a Sudafed if you get a cold, then you shouldn’t be smoking.”
So why is marijuana still on the prohibited list during competition?
According to the International Olympic Committee’s medical director, Dr. Richard Budgett, there are three criteria for any substance to be banned: enhancing performance, posing a health risk and violating the spirit of sport. Marijuana, he said, “is at least two of those: harmful to health and against the spirit of the sport.”
“The big argument,” he said, “is over what degree of performance enhancement there is and how much influence performance enhancement should have.”
IOC medical commission chairman Arne Ljungqvist said, “We have had, in total, a week’s debate on that,” and the general conclusion was that, “yes, marijuana can be a performance-enhancing stimulant.”
But, Budgett said, “it was decided that it shouldn’t be an absolutely essential criterion, so we can still prohibit substance and methods that are just against spirit of sport and harmful to health. You don’t have to have evidence of performance enhancement.”
Ultimately, Ljungqvist said, WADA’s raising the in-competition threshold to avoid catching out-of-competition social use was “an attempt — a reasonable attempt — to deal with a complicated matter.”
As for Rebagliati, the Canadian is now cashing in on the controversy. He owns Ross' Gold, a medical marijuana company. Reached via email this weekend in Kelowna, British Columbia, the pot purveyor said he was busy skiing and “inadvertently" did not respond to questions.