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This article was published 2/6/2018 (469 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
TORONTO — Two decades after winning Canada’s first-ever Olympic gold medal in men’s snowboarding, losing it after testing positive for marijuana and then getting it back, Ross Rebagliati has a message for athletes.
Cannabis can be a powerful tool for training.
Rebagliati has travelled from the podium to having his own pot brand. Ross’ Gold was front and centre at the Lift & Co. cannabis trade expo in Toronto on May 25, hawking gold bongs and and rolling papers with the slogan "Inhale the good s—t, exhale the bulls—t."
The Ross’ Gold marijuana dispensary in Kelowna, B.C. shut its doors at the beginning of the year after the municipality threatened legal action, Rebagliati says, but the company plans to franchise legal Ross’ Gold dispensaries after legalization.
A steady stream of fans dropped by the Ross’ Gold booth to pose for photos with the Olympic champion, admire his medal from the 1998 Nagano games and browse his products.
After disqualifying Rebagliati for having THC in his bloodstream, Olympic officials returned his medal because cannabis was not on the list of banned substances.
"Pretty much everybody that comes by is a fan in one way or another, or has some kind of story about where they were 20 years ago when I won," Rebagliati told the Free Press, flashing a gleaming gold tooth with the Ross’ Gold marijuana leaf logo. (He got the custom crown after breaking his front incisor in half last year.)
"A lot of guys that were in Grade 5 20 years ago are now in the (cannabis) industry, and remember me from their childhoods."
Now almost 47 years old, Rebagliati remembers making a positive association between cannabis and athletics during Arnold Schwarzenegger’s 1970s bodybuilding heyday, when he was winning Mr. Universe and Mr. Olympia titles.
"He made no bones about it back in the day," Rebagliati said. "He did photo shoots with him smoking joints after his workouts to recover and to relax, because it’s zero carbs, zero calories and, for a bodybuilder, that’s crucial, right?"
Despite Rebagliati’s belief in the athletic boost from marijuana, not all agree. While more studies exploring the link between cannabis and athletic performance are emerging, some observers caution there is a lack of reliable evidence.
Rebagliati tried weed for the first time in the late 1980s, but "never really got into it."
"And then when I moved to Whistler in 1990, I ran into a whole bunch of athletes, extreme sports athletes like extreme skiers, that would wake up first thing in the morning and start blazing joints right away."
"And I was like, ‘Whoa, what are you guys doing? I can’t even believe you guys are smoking joints right now!’" he recalled.
But Rebagliati soon found a role for cannabis in his training regimen.
"I started trying it, and I realized that you could hike 10 kilometres and it felt like one kilometre," he said.
"You could do all this endurance stuff, and what you would normally shy away from, like the pain of how long it is and the heavy breathing and your legs and your body protesting what you’re up to... It’s not a workout anymore, it’s a euphoria feeling. It just changed the whole idea of what being an athlete was to me, in my head."
Rebagliati still uses weed when he exercises.
"I just wake up, I do one and I feel great," he said. "It makes me more motivated to throw on my biking shoes and go to my workout... A lot of times you need the extra motivation to follow through with your goals, and for me it was cannabis that gave me that ‘pop’ in the morning, that made me really want to focus in and follow through with my goal and my dream."
During a Cannabis in Sport panel last Sunday, Rebagliati told the audience that the drug can help athletes with more than just motivation; other potential benefits include increased body awareness, inflamation control, appetite enhancement and post-workout relaxation, he said.
But it’s "not necessarily for everybody," said co-panellist Philippe Dépault, a former competitive cyclist who now heads the Quebec-focused cannabis brand Maïtri. Because exercise can amplify the psychoactive effects of THC, he said, he tries to use it 20 to 30 minutes before exerting himself to avoid the "big rush" of the drug’s onset.
Once opposed to marijuana, Dépault started using it medically after he got sick returning from a training camp in New Zealand. Now, he vaporizes concentrated cannabis before road biking, running and practising yoga.
"I feel like the cannabis can help me to be super-mindful, super-focused, super-self-aware of my pain," he told the audience. "It helps me to reduce the pain, but it also helps me to go further than if I didn’t consume before."
Professional Canadian arm-wrestler Devon (No Limits) Larratt spoke about about his experiences with cannabis, but said he hadn’t yet used it during competition.
"I’d love to compete with it (but) I don’t know if it’s legal yet. I don’t know — am I in trouble?" he said, throwing up his arms in an "arrest me, already" gesture.
"Take me away!" he implored.
"Whatever, it’s a new age, and I think we’re realizing that this is part of a healthy lifestyle and as Canadians, we’re just accepting that marijuana is going to be the next thing, next to coffee and alcohol, that’s just assimilated into our society."
With their business ventures in the cannabis industry, athletes such as Rebagliati and Dépault are betting that will be the case.
"I think brands will play very great roles in educating the population about cannabis," Dépault said. "I think we will see more and more athlete-focused brands in the cannabis space, like active-lifestyle brands."
Dépault’s Maïtri brand is already running a cannabis-friendly running club in Montreal, and offers "elevated yoga" classes, he said.
"A lot of people show up to these events, so we see that people have tons of questions that are unanswered right now in the market."
There are plenty of as yet unanswered questions about the drug’s impact on athletes from people not connected to the cannabis industry.
Gold medal-winning Olympic rower Jeff Powell has heard of professional athletes using marijuana for recreational purposes, but not as a performance-booster.
"Maybe it’s a placebo effect… but the blanket statement is that there really isn’t a performance-enhancement component to it," said Powell, who’s now general manager of the Canadian Sport Centre Manitoba. (CSCM participates in the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport’s anti-doping program, and is obliged to discourage the use of drugs in sports.)
Powell hadn’t heard of Rebagliati’s philosophy that cannabis use can help ease the tedium of athletic training.
Cannabis, he said, "significantly reduces reaction times and focus and all of the things that we would normally associate with high-level athletics."
"The fact of the matter is, if you are someone who needs marijuana to focus or to calm yourself before an event, that may be a sign that there’s something else going on within your training or preparation program that isn’t quite right."
Sports journalist Alex Hutchinson writes about the science of athletics for Outside Magazine, and authored the recent book Endure: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance. He said he’s far from an expert on the science around cannabis in sport, but points out that the athletic benefits ascribed to cannabis by athletes are highly subjective and difficult to measure.
"There’s very little basis on which to judge whether cannabis has any particular consistent, measurable effects, either positive or negative, on sports performance," Hutchinson said.
"To put that in context, I would say there’s actually very little reliable evidence to support a lot the things that athletes do, things like ice baths or even massage and things like that."
Modern athletes are bombarded with supposedly beneficial products — and Hutchinson is "fairly skeptical" of many of them.
"Walk down the aisles of any health-food store, or surf the web if you dare, and there’s hundreds and hundreds of products marketed to athletes," he said. "It’s a multibillion-dollar industry."
But cannabis has become a hot topic in recent years among one athletic community in particular, he said — "ultrarunners," who race distances as long as 160 kilometres.
"People say it helps them feel able to cope with the discomfort of running for 100 miles, and stay positive and maybe get into a meditative state that allows the miles to fly by."
But ultrarunning isn’t an Olympic sport, notes Hutchinson, "so they don’t have to worry so much about contravening doping codes, Olympic rules."
The anti-doping posture at the highest levels of sport, he said, means independent research on cannabis and athletics is unlikely to receive funding.
"Health (research) granting bodies aren’t going to be interested in the sports-performance question, and Olympic-focused or professional sports-focused funding bodies are also going to be unlikely unless doping rules change," he said.
"So it’s stuck in kind of a grey zone where there’s not a lot of incentive for any group to do independent research on this stuff."
Despite his messaging around the athletic potential of cannabis, Ross Rebagliati told the Free Press he’s not trying to evangelize to anyone.
"We don’t need to; the market is huge, it’s massive, it’s pre-existing," he said, contrasting Canada’s current cannabis boom against the dot-com bubble of the late 1990s and early 2000s.
"You had to actually convince people to buy a phone or to get an email address, or to log on to Facebook for the first time," he said.
"There’s always been a market for weed, like forever... people have been using cannabis since the dawn of time."
A version of this story was originally published on TheLeafNews.com.
Solomon Israel is the full-time cannabis reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press and its national cannabis news website, TheLeafNews.com. He covers the social, legal, medical and scientific aspects of marijuana legalization in Manitoba and the rest of Canada.