Olympic champion Michael Phelps is in good company as a world-class athlete who uses cannabis. It’s a pity that he couldn’t have been brave enough to stand up for his relationship with the world’s most wonderful plant, instead of half-heartedly apologising in an effort to salvage his sponsorship contracts.
If Phelps had been closer to the end of his career and with less to lose by being honest, then maybe he would have taken the approach of two-time Super Bowl champion Mark Stepnoski. After retiring from the NFL in 2001, Stepnoski became an outspoken legalisation advocate who confirmed “responsible use” of cannabis during his pro career.” After a game you need something to relax,” said Stepnoski. “I’d rather smoke than take painkillers.”
Indeed, many top athletes in a variety of sports use cannabis because of its medicinal effects as a painkiller, muscle relaxant and antidepressant.
Ricky Williams is another NFL player who has spoken out about the benefits of cannabis, despite it costing him endorsements and almost his entire football career. Williams has repeatedly been punished for failing urine tests and was briefly a spokesperson for the antidepressant Paxil, which he was prescribed to treat his social anxiety disorder. That endorsement deal ended when Williams told ESPN that “marijuana is 10 times better for me than Paxil.”
Williams has a prescription for medicinal cannabis, but NFL rules make no exception for medicinal use of cannabis, despite the fact that 25% of Americans live in states where some medical use of cannabis is legal. Olympic rules also don’t make exemptions for medicinal use either, yet cannabis is accepted as a legal medicine in Canada, Germany, Italy, Holland and other nations.
When Canadian snowboarder Ross Rebagliati had his 1998 Olympic gold medal temporarily withdrawn due to his failing a urine test for pot, many pundits observed that pot use was common among West Coast skiers. But cannabis use crosses all sporting boundaries.
“I personally know boxers, body builders, cyclists, runners and athletes from all walks of life that train and compete with the assistance of marijuana,” said WWE wrestler Rob Van Dam in an article he wrote for Cannabis Culture Magazine, “but they might not feel comfortable sharing this information.”
Some of the best cricket players of all time, like Phil Tufnell and Sir Ian Botham, have admitted to regularly using cannabis to deal with the stress and muscle aches common to all athletes. In 2001, half of South Africa’s cricket team was punished after being caught toking up with the team physiotherapist; they were celebrating a championship victory in the Caribbean.
Regular cannabis use didn’t impede the ability of basketball legends like Rasheed Wallace, Charles Oakley or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Indeed, Oakley has claimed that over half of NBA players smoke pot before each game. Since these players are top athletes whose career depends on them being at peak performance for every game, it stands to reason that perhaps they are using cannabis because it provides some benefit to their abilities on the court.
Most sports officials don’t consider cannabis to be a performance-enhancing drug, and generally the ban against its use is justified as a matter of ensuring that athletes project the right image for their young admirers.
Yet considering how many top athletes use cannabis, is it possible that cannabis can sometimes be performance enhancing in ways other than easing stress and reducing pain?
Users of cannabis have long noted how the herb creates a peculiar perception that time is extended, dubbed “time slowdown” by pot-promoting poet Allen Ginsberg in 1965.
Like a stoned jazz musician adding more complexity and beats to a song, time slowdown might allow an athlete to more rapidly evaluate different options, more quickly consider moves and maneuvers against competing players.
Most cannabis research is done to show some sort of harm from the use of this plant, but not enough is being done to understand how cannabis can actually enhance and improve human abilities. Discovering how toking up possibly helps the world’s greatest athletes to better their performance could also teach us how this plant can better serve us all.