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Sha’Carri Richardson won’t be running in Tokyo this summer. Sure, only five women in sports history have recorded a faster 100-meter sprint, but she tested positive for cannabis after her overwhelming win in the U.S. Olympic Trials. The subsequent ban only disqualified her for one race, but USA Track and Field denied her participation in the rest.
Richardson apparently benefited from the performance-enhancing benefits of cannabis. What exactly are these benefits? Well, the Olympic drug testers actually spelled them out in the Sports Medicine journal.
Ahead of the 2012 Olympics, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) co-authored “Cannabis in Sport” to justify the ban in athletic circles. Their attempt at justification won’t win them any medals, but the article devoted nearly 1,000 words to the ways in which cannabis improves athletic performance. The text cited several studies, which found the following:
“Smoked cannabis can decrease anxiety, fear, depression and tension”
May help treat pain, muscle spasms, inflammation and “improve oxygenation to the tissues”
Allows “athletes to better perform under pressure and to alleviate stress experienced before and during competition”
“Cannabinoids play a major role in the extinction of fear memories… [and] athletes who experienced traumatic events in their sports career could benefit from such an effect”
“Cannabis also helps in coping with negative mood and emotional distress”
“Could be performance enhancing in sports that require greater concentration”
Many athletes discussed these “performance-enhancing capabilities” with WADA. Describing the anecdotal evidence, the agencies wrote, “Cannabis is presented as a drug that has significant positive effects in sports, such as improvement of vision for goalkeepers and muscle relaxation.” And that’s not all.
“Athletes… indicate that their thoughts flow more easily and their decision making and creativity is enhanced”
“Others claim that cannabis improves their concentration or reduces pain”
Gymnasts, divers, football players, basketball players and other athletes “claim smoking cannabis before play helps them to focus better”
A study of French student athletes found “the relaxing properties of cannabis were frequently used to enhance sports performance”
“The higher the students’ level of competition, the more cannabis was employed to enhance performance”
Succinctly summarizing the potential benefits, NIH and WADA wrote, “Cannabis induces euphoria, improves self-confidence, induces relaxation and steadiness and relieves the stress of competition. Cannabis improves sleep and recovery after an event, reduces anxiety and fear and aids the forgetting of negative events such as bad falls and so forth. Cannabis… perhaps improves training and performance, yielding a competitive edge…. Cannabis enhances sensory perception, decreases respiratory rate and increases heart rate; increased bronchodilation may improve oxygenation of the tissues. Finally, cannabis is an analgesic that could permit athletes to work through injuries and pain induced by training fatigue.”
In full disclosure, NIH and WADA traditionally slam cannabis, and past claims seem to contradict the positive effects described in Sports Medicine. Perhaps these agencies twist the evidence to reach the predetermined outcome they want — e.g., a continued ban in Olympic competition — though the evidence of potential benefits cited in Sports Medicine come from a wide range of clinical studies.
Whatever the agencies’ intentions, they made a compelling case for all the ways cannabis might help, both in sports and in life. In the case of Sha’Carri Richardson, the sprinter said cannabis helped her cope with the shocking loss of her biological mother, which she learned about from a reporter a few days before the U.S. Olympic Trials began. Her cannabis use did have a major adverse effect — being denied participation in the Olympics — though this harm was inflicted by people, not the plant.