Snowboarding and the Olympics
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Doping. The word conjures images of Mark McGwire, the Tour de France and world-class sprinters. In sports such as baseball, cycling and track and field, performance-enhancing drugs have skewed any sense of fair play.
But snowboarding? Not so much. Any cloud of suspicion among shreds consists in gray ribbons of pungent pot smoke. From decriminalization of marijuana in mountain towns, to positive drug tests at the Winter Olympics, to the Grenade Games festival famously held each year on April 20 -- the unofficial "National Pot Smoking Day" -- snowboarding seems to embrace stoner sensibilities.
"Marijuana is a part of snowboarding culture," said Pat Bridges, editor of Snowboarder Magazine.
Still, as professional snowboarding increasingly splits into factions -- those on the contest track, versus those making a living from media exposure -- the sport's association with pot symbolizes an identity crisis. For some, it's a badge of honor demonstrating that snowboarding has not lost its antiestablishment roots. For others, it's a scarlet letter suggesting shreds have more in common with Jeff Spicoli than other medal-winning athletes at the Winter Olympics.
Famous pot moments in sport history
Snowboarding isn't the only pastime in which pot use is prevalent. Here's a look at a few other stoner moments in sport:
Retired downhill mountain bike world champion Missy Giove is arrested in upstate New York for driving a truck containing 200 pounds of marijuana.
Olympic Gold medalist Michael Phelps is suspended by USA Swimming for three months after the surfacing of a photo in which he appears to be smoking from a bong.
Dolphins running back Ricky Williams tests positive for marijuana (for the first time). He's fined $650,000 for violating the NFL's substance-abuse policy.
Former Dallas Cowboys offensive lineman Nate Newton is arrested (his second pot arrest in as many months) for intent to distribute 175 pounds.
Six-time NBA MVP Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has six grams seized by U.S. Customs officials at airport in Toronto; pays $500 fine.
Snowboarder Ross Rebagliati is stripped of his Olympic Gold medal after testing positive for marijuana. The medal is reinstated the following day.
Nine-time NBA All-Star Robert Parish is arrested for possession after receiving a FedEx package at his Massachusetts home containing two ounces.
According to a Centers for Disease Control survey from 2007, approximately 6 percent of Americans described using marijuana during the past month, but estimates for its use in the snowboarding community are harder to come by. According to the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA), an independent group that administers drug-testing policy for all Olympic athletes in this country, marijuana accounts for between 15 and 20 percent of all positive tests for banned substances. Of those total positive tests for marijuana, skiers and snowboarders make up between 10 and 13 percent.
Even as public attitudes toward pot soften, the subject makes many in snowboarding sweat: Despite the legalization of marijuana for medical use in 14 states, as well as a new stance by the United States Justice Department against prosecuting medical marijuana production under federal law, most pro shreds remain shy about discussing pot use. With sponsorship opportunities creeping into the six- and seven-figure range, there's a growing sense that they have more to lose than just the chance for an Olympic medal.
Susan Izzo -- an agent whose roster of talent includes Danny Davis, Ellery Hollingsworth, Greg Bretz, Kevin Pearce, Tyler Flanagan and Jack and Luke Mitrani -- said she would advise her clients against speaking about marijuana out of concerns that the sport has already been harmed by a perception that it's populated by a bunch of potheads.
Bob Klein, a former pro and now a snowboarding agent, said the culture of snowboarding has changed. Partying in public is no longer condoned. "It's gotten a lot more serious in recent years, where there's a lot less kids smoking weed, in general," he said.
But anecdotal evidence abounds, from the celebration of stoner imagery in the sport's media, to relaxed laws toward marijuana in California, Colorado and British Columbia -- all places with large snowboarding populations. And in Breckenridge, Colo., a locus for snowboarding for three decades, a law enacted this year decriminalized possession of one ounce of marijuana or less.
Rick Cusick, associate publisher of High Times magazine, which covers cannabis culture, sees a natural symmetry between marijuana and snowboarding. The generation that introduced snowboarding "ultimately gave us medical marijuana -- the generation that I think ultimately is going to legalize marijuana," he said. "So the standards of that generation are reflected in the sports of that generation."
Those standards famously butted against more traditional thinking in 1998 when snowboarding debuted at the Winter Games in Nagano, Japan. Canadian slalom racer Ross Rebagliati was nearly stripped of his gold medal after a drug test turned up traces of marijuana in his system.
"In 1998 it was sort of confirmation for the public," said Klein. "Like, 'Yes, we knew it. Those idiots smoke pot. Of course they do.'"
While some saw Rebagliati's case as a black eye for the sport, others felt he struck a blow for the antiestablishment spirit of snowboarding. "I think it was the best thing that could have happened," said Mike Basich, whose career spanned the era when top riders like Shawn Farmer, Andy Hetzel and Shaun Palmer were celebrated as notorious ragers. "It made everyone really remember what snowboarding was. Everyone was so focused for five years, 'Oh my god, it's going to be in the Olympics.' It led to this whole jock style of snowboarding."
If someone is in a competitive situation and under the influence, perhaps it would lower inhibitions, lower stress, and enable someone to perform at a level or perform feats that when not under the influence they may not be as able to do.
"-- USADA spokeswoman Erin Hannan
Rebagliati blamed secondhand smoke for his positive test, and kept his medal due to a legal loophole that meant marijuana was not specifically among banned substances at the Games.
More than a decade later, he blames the International Olympic Committee and International Skiing Federation (FIS) for creating the flap around his drug test in an attempt to bring the free spirits of snowboarding to heel at the Games.
"I'm sure that many other snowboarders failed their drug tests for marijuana in the months leading up to the Games too," Rebagliati wrote in "Off the Chain -- An Insider's History of Snowboarding," published in 2009. "And if one of them had won the gold medal, the same thing would have happened to that winner."
A major doping scandal during the 1998 Tour de France led the IOC to create the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) to administer drug tests for Olympic sports. Today snowboarders with Olympic aspirations are subject to surprise testing for performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) and other banned substances, including marijuana. There's no penalty for a positive test outside of competition. But if an athlete tests positive for cannabis at a contest, the case comes under review. And if two of three standards are met -- cannabis acted as a performance-enhancer, acted as a health or safety risk, or violated the spirit of sport -- an athlete can be subject to a range of sanctions, up to a two-year suspension.
"I don't smoke, so I don't care anyhow," said Jamie Anderson, who was subject to USADA testing while attempting to qualify for the U.S. women's halfpipe team this season. "I do think it's kind of lame that that's on the list. But at the same time they want you natural and clean, and on the same level as everyone else."
With the prevailing wisdom in medicine holding that marijuana actually impairs reaction time and offers no performance-enhancing benefits, some wonder how cannabis wound up lumped with the likes of anabolic steroids and human growth hormone on a banned list.
"There are schools of thought that generally if someone is in a competitive situation and under the influence, that perhaps it would lower inhibitions, lower stress, and enable someone to perform at a level or perform feats that when not under the influence they may not be as able to do," said Erin Hannan, spokeswoman for USADA.
Dr. Lester Grinspoon, emeritus professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, began studying marijuana more than 40 years ago. He has heard from many skiers who say cannabis enhances their experience, altering their perception of time and movement like some scene from "The Matrix."
"It's just like people who listen to music and find that time is expanded so they can get more of the individual notes of the music," Grinspoon said. "It brings the equivalent of a microscope to the music. They can hear the very rapid parts of it. People have told me the same about skiing. It doesn't slow the time down, but they can execute it better because it gives them a little more time or concentration on what they're doing."
For riders like Nate Bozung, marijuana makes snowboarding better.
"If I'm sitting there getting ready to hit a rail, my mind goes crazy if I'm not stoned," he said. "It makes you relax and get into the groove. I won't even go snowboarding if I'm not stoned. I get bored with it."
Still, virtually everyone interviewed found any association between snowboarding and PEDs a stretch.
"I have a problem with them even testing for performance-enhancing drugs," Bridges said. "Because in this instance it casts suspicion on a sport where there's never been any accusation. There's never been an instance in competitive snowboarding where somebody's made an accusation that someone's blood doping or using steroids."
Circe Wallace, action sports agent and former pro shred, said: "There's not anyone on the podium who's doping. They might be smoking some weed. But they're not using HGH, or any performance-enhancing drugs."
"A cheater in snowboarding would be not welcome," Wallace said. "They can smoke pot till the cows come home, but to cheat ... "
Still, even as prohibitions against marijuana fall, few shreds want to be labeled burners. Weed remains illegal in most locales, and under federal law. And risk of social stigma and -- not insignificantly -- potential loss of sponsorship looms.
"Riders don't express more than they are comfortable with because there's so much riding on their shoulders," Basich said about sponsorship dollars.
Nate Bozung described sponsors' blacklisting him for his outspoken stance in favor of marijuana. "I've gotten a bad rap in my so-called career because I always did talk about it," said Bozung, who went on to found his own company, BozWreck. "Everyone's trying to have this good clean-cut image."
With mainstream corporate brands increasingly investing in snowboarders, many openly wonder whether the winner-take-all mentality that makes riders fear talking about marijuana will also eventually lead some shred to begin dabbling with PEDs.
"As you see corporate sponsors get involved, it's definitely drifting further and further -- to put it in political terms -- to the right, whereas we started out so far to the left," Bridges said. "The tipping point would be if someone tested positive for steroids, or blood doping. Then it would be like, 'That's official. Snowboarding has gone the way of all other sports.'"
"Then it's no longer us against them," Bridges said, "because us has become them."