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Could Getting Stoned Actually Make You BETTER at Sports? This Olympic Gold Medallist Thinks So…

A classic Olympic joke, a gag even your Gran would laugh at, is that weed is banned from competition because it’s a performance-enhancing drug. Duh. Cannabis makes you want to chill and giggle not go for gold, the punchline always goes.

The laughs would then move on to Ross Rebagliati. You know the Canadian snowboarder who was stripped of his gold medal after testing positive for marijuana at the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano? The one who then got his medal back when he claimed he didn’t inhale. Like Clinton! And the clichéd chat about how only in snowboarding could you be stoned and still win a gold would prevail.

In truth the IOC banned cannabis because it was illegal and violated the “spirit of the sport” rather than for any perceived performance-enhancing qualities. Also to paraphrase Dr. Matt Fedoruk, the USADA’s science director, you probably wouldn’t want a bobsledder racing down an icy track while off his box.

But the jokes about cannabis and sport could be about to get less funny. For in recent years some people, including scientists and professional athletes, have been questioning the idea that cannabis hinders performance and in fact suggesting the exact opposite.

Last month The Wall Street Journal ran an article on pot’s benefits for ultrarunners, while in 2013, an article in the US journal Front Psychiatry extolled its benefits for action sports athletes. They said:

“Cannabis smoking can be helpful for some activities such as extreme sports, as it improves muscle relaxation, reduces anxiety, and extincts fear memories (e.g., negative experiences) leading to enhanced performance. It also improves sleep time and recovery, which may favour performance when an athlete is facing multiple competitions in a short period of time.”

Ross Rebagliati is one of the biggest advocates of the athletic benefits of cannabis for sportspeople. So much so that he’s started his own company Ross’ Gold, tagline “We’ve got what you need”, the “first super-premium branded medical cannabis company in Canada”. Its different strains are cheekily named after podium positions.

Rebagliati maintains that he hadn’t smoked in preparation for the 1998 Winter Olympics, though he has smoked regularly since, telling us: “If I had been using cannabis before going to Nagano then I would have been breaking the rules and many of my supporters may have seen that as irresponsible.”

The Canadian government and Olympic committee were amongst those who backed Rebagliati throughout the medal being awarded then taken away then given back debacle. And they’ve backed him since. As was Whistler ski resort, where he has a ski run and snowboard park named in his honour.

I ask how it felt to win an Olympic gold medal, which was also the first ever snowboarding medal, and then have it taken away.

Was there still some buzz attached to the memory? He says: “I can still remember the feeling but the euphoria was short-lived at the time. But it was the beginning of a cannabis revolution that we are seeing play out now 17 years later. I feel better than ever about my win now that I can use it to help people better understand the medicinal benefits of hemp and cannabis.” 

Since then Rebagliati has been the go-to guy for media flare-ups involving cannabis and elite sport. He’s publically defended Michael Phelps and spoken about other high profile athletes who’ve smoked such as Usain Bolt. I ask how that felt: “From the beginning I felt I had a responsibility to stand up for cannabis use and not bow to the social pressures I was under to steer away from it.”

So is Ross’ Gold an attempt to turn that attention into something positive? Rebagliati says: “I would like to think Ross’ Gold is a positive piece of the cannabis puzzle.”

I ask what health benefits he believes cannabis can offer athletes? “Cannabis has many benefits of which CBD (Cannabidiol) is one of the biggest. CBD has very powerful anti-inflammatory properties. Reducing inflammation helps to better manage the aches and pains an athlete’s body chronically endures. It also has a calming effect reducing stress and anxiety which are two more realities of being an athlete.”

“I find that medicating with cannabis (extract) through a vaporiser pen pre-workout increases my focus helping me to achieve a more concentrated effort. The use of cannabis has been shown to be healthy for your respiratory system as it helps to open the capillaries in the lungs increasing oxygen intake. Cannabis has also been shown to increase appetite and quality of sleep. Two of the most important things an athlete can do to maximise their physical efforts.”

I ask whether these benefits mean that cannabis should therefore be banned from competition? He responds: “I believe the properties found in cannabis are absolutely performance-enhancing. But not in the traditional sense, unlike steroids or blood doping it will not give you superhuman capabilities.”

Before adding a statement that may surprise some regular smokers: “I found that the use of cannabis increased my motivation to wake up early and do my workout day after day.” 

He also spoke about the focus that cannabis could bring him: “I found that my workouts were more intense due to increased focus. Cannabis use helped me to dial in to my equipment by allowing me to focus on the finer things including more effectively reading snow conditions. It also helped me eat and sleep especially when jet lag was a factor. Any professional athlete will tell you the higher the level of competition you reach the more you travel. All of these benefits combined lend itself to enhancing one’s overall performance.”

I ask Rebagliati how he’d compare snowboarding stoned to snowboarding straight? He said: “I don’t condone the use of cannabis during sport for the inexperienced user but for an experienced user it can help you focus on things like safety, snow conditions and generally being more aware of your surroundings.”

“It can give you a sense of relaxation allowing you to be more technically correct by more easily allowing yourself to notice the smaller details of how your equipment is working and how you might improve it. It can heighten your sense of wellbeing making whatever you’re doing even more enjoyable.”

But he’s honestly never used it in contests!? “I never used cannabis before or during a competition mainly for social reasons which at the time (in the 90s) were so intense. It could be a source of great anxiety impeding any performance I was striving for.”

I ask how he believes cannabis is best consumed for the best medicinal benefits. He says:

“A vaporiser, edibles and then a water pipe (in that order). Smoking or combusting dry flower yields the least amount of medicinal value. Ingesting cannabis orally is more of an overall body sensation (physiological) while inhaling cannabis (for some) is more psychoactive.”

Are there any sports where he thinks cannabis definitely wouldn’t help? “I’m sure that 99% of athletes who use cannabis for sport would choose not to use it before or during any of their events. I could see how athletes who compete in endurance competitions would see a benefit to possibly medicating here and there along the way if the rules provided for it.”

This is thought to be as it helps with pain relief. Rebagliati adds this caveat: “There has been some research to support the non-use of cannabis with individuals with a pre-disposition to some psychological dispositions. I would recommend everyone does their own research and consults a physician before consuming any cannabis products.”

Does he have any advice for people who’ve never used it before but want to try it? He says: “Take the correct dose. If you’re smoking a joint start with the smallest of tokes and wait 1/2 hour to see where your tolerance is at before you might have another tiny hit. If it’s an edible ask somebody how strong it may be never take their word for it. One bite of a cookie or brownie is often all you will need to get started. Remember it takes up to an hour to feel the effects of edibles so be patient if you think your immune to it. There’s always tomorrow!”

Why does he think snowboarding is so often associated with cannabis? He says: “Mountain culture and sport go well with cannabis use due to the athletic and healthy nature of it. Being able to appreciate the moment, smell the flowers and enjoy your favourite activities are life’s most precious gifts. Cannabis is a natural product that promotes wellbeing and physical ability.”

I ask if he thinks Canada will follow Colorado, Washington and now Alaska’s lead in terms of legalisation? He says: “Canada will eventually take a serious look at the legalisation of cannabis once more scientific proof of its safety is revealed. With the medicinal approach the federal government has taken this important research is finally being done. The economic benefit is also going to be a huge factor with potentially thousands of new jobs created in and around the cannabis industry.”

I ask if he thinks there’d be any downsides to legalisation, for ski resorts in particular? He says: “The use of cannabis at ski resorts is nothing new, at least since I started skiing in the 70s. It’s a matter of choice whether you decide alcohol, tobacco or cannabis consumption is for you and there are appropriate places and times to consume them.”

“There are laws in place to help regulate the safe use of these products. Individuals who operate outside of these restrictions are subject to various penalties on a case by case basis. In the near future there will be designated areas implemented throughout our society where it will be acceptable to use cannabis outside the house including at various ski resorts.”

Finally, I have to ask if he has a favourite spot in Whistler for a smoke!? He says: “Anywhere in the trees. Rebagliati Park is a good place to start…”

Find out more about about Ross’ Gold here and follow Ross on twitter here

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