The greatest American sprinter could not participate in the Olympics because she had used marijuana. Cannabis use is common among top U.S. athletes. However, scientific research on the subject is still pending.
When the women’s 100-meter race began at the Tokyo Olympics, American star runner Sha’Carri Richardson was absent. She had qualified with a fantastic running time, but shortly afterwards was excluded from the Olympic Games by her federation. Shortly after her much acclaimed victory at the qualifying competitions in the United States, she tested positive for THC.
The disqualification of the 100-meter runner set the stage for a renewed flare-up of an old controversy: How does the use of cannabis affect athletes’ performance and how sensible is it that the substance is banned in top-level sport?
This is because cannabis is listed as a prohibited doping substance by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA). Only, at the current state of knowledge, there is no scientific evidence that its use of cannabis would improve the speed and strength of athletes. In fact, many medical experts believe that the drug may actually decrease physical performance.
The real reason why athletes ingest cannabis seems to lie somewhere else entirely. According to a 2019 study in which 1161 athletes used cannabis, about 70% of them said it helped them sleep better and experience less pain during workouts. An astonishing 60% said it made them feel more relaxed. In a University of Colorado survey, 70% of respondents said they use cannabis to motivate themselves to exercise, and 78% to promote recreation.
This also explains the prevalence of cannabis in elite sports. In the NHL, the North American hockey league, insiders estimate that about 60% regularly use cannabis. In the American Football and Basketball Leagues, the percentage is estimated to be over 50%. In these high-pressure environments, cannabis is a popular way to recreate and relax. After the USA Baseball League removed cannabis from the list of banned substances in 2019, the football and basketball leagues followed suit in 2020.
The New York Times has written extensively on the subject. Marijuana is now legal in numerous states in the US. After analyzing numerous studies, the paper concluded that “all subsequent studies indicate that cannabis does not improve strength or endurance.”
Is that why marijuana is a harmless drug that helps athletes unwind? It’s definitely worth taking a closer look at the research. After using marijuana, heart rate and blood pressure increase to such an extent that athletic performance is significantly impaired, according to simple tests with competitive athletes.1 Furthermore, reports of relaxation and increased recovery are based only on subjective reports of experience. For a conclusive analysis, more research is needed to assess the effects of cannabis use on the physical and psychological factors of sport.
 Campos, D. R., Yonamine, M., & de Moraes Moreau, R. L. (2003). Marijuana as doping in sports. Sports medicine, 33(6), 395-399
 Zeiger, J. S., Silvers, W. S., Fleegler, E. M., & Zeiger, R. S. (2019). Cannabis use in active athletes: behaviors related to subjective effects. PLoS One, 14(6), e0218998