Now that Canadian snowboarder Ross Rebagliati has had his gold medal returned to him on what was essentially a technicality, the question remains: Why is marijuana on the International Olympic Committee's list of banned substances in the first place? Steroids, amphetamines, ephedrine, these we can understand. Because although it has become nearly impossible to develop tests which will catch an athlete who is trying to gain an unfair advantage through chemistry, those who are caught cheating in this way have clearly undermined the intent of athletic competition. But marijuana?
The IOC, to this point, has not maintained that marijuana has the potential to enhance performance. That doesn't prove, of course, that it might not for some. Many highly successful athletes are well-known smokers. Robert Parrish, who cheated father time over a remarkable 18 year career in the National Basketball Association, was arrested late in his career for accepting delivery of a UPS package that turned out to contain a large quantity of marijuana. Did Parrish feel that it helped?
More recently, a New York Times article estimated that over 70% of current NBA players are regular marijuana smokers. These are among the best and most successful athletes in the world. Other athletes, in other sports, have been caught with the forbidden plant, and no doubt an even larger number of prominent athletes have eluded detection. At the least, it would be hard to argue that marijuana is significantly detrimental to athletic performance.
Growing up playing and coaching on the basketball courts of Queens, New York, I knew a number of good players, some of whom went on to play Division I ball, who swore that their game rose to another level after a few puffs. Perhaps the smoke had simply clouded their judgment, but they seemed convinced. As for snowboarding, it would be reasonable to think that the prospect of hurtling down a mountain at speeds in excess of eighty miles an hour on a piece of fiberglass could lead even a teetotaler to request a sedative of some sort.
If marijuana is, in fact, an unfair advantage, a performance enhancing substance, than the IOC needs to come out and justify its policy by stating as much. The feeling here, though, is that such a statement by the world's most visible athletic commission would outrage the world's drug warriors, particularly the zero-tolerance Americans. In the absence of such a statement, the question still remains. What justification does the IOC have in testing for it?
Their are two possible justifications, but neither is tenable. The first is that we cannot have our athletes using marijuana because it is, in some sense, immoral. The problem here is that despite the lofty goals of the Olympic Games, morals, or the lack thereof, has never been a disqualifier. Are athletes ineligible for competition if they have previously been convicted of a violent crime? What of those who have served in the army of a nation with a horrific record of human rights abuses? What if they have admitted to beating their children? Certainly these acts would be viewed by the majority of rational people as being on a lower plane of morality than the act of inhaling the smoke from some burning vegetable matter?
The second possible but equally absurd justification is that allowing an athlete who has tested positive for marijuana to leave the Games with a gold medal hanging proudly around his or her neck would send the wrong message to our children. Well, why is allowing the child-beater to wear the gold a more appropriate message? Ahh, the warriors might proclaim, but children watching the Olympics would have no idea that the athlete on the medal stand had ever done such a thing. Right. But while we can agree that kids should not be smoking pot, how many of the world's children would know today that it is possible to smoke marijuana and still be the greatest snowboarder on earth, unless the IOC took the absurd and utterly irrelevant step of testing for it?
The truth is, that unless evidence is uncovered which proves performance-enhancement, there is absolutely no justification to test athletes for marijuana. It is not relevant to the issues of competition. Some Olympic athletes live under the rule of governments which couldn't care less about their personal use. Others live under governments which spend billions of dollars to hunt users down and put them into cages. In either case, it is not the business of an international athletic committee to choose sides.
The IOC should not be in the business of enforcing the laws, or even the mores of any nation unless they are directly relevant to the fairness of the games themselves. Having attempted to do so, however, and being that the gold medal hangs today from the neck of the rightful winner of the competition, perhaps we ought to thank them for their misjudgment. The IOC's witch hunt has put another hole in the credibility of those who assail marijuana as the devil's weed. And the bounty of their hunt has given us the opportunity to ask, again and again, of the zealot drug warriors: "How can one possibly come to be the best in the world at something as difficult as snowboarding, while suffering from amotivational syndrome?"
Adam J. Smith