By now, pretty much everybody knows Michael Phelps. Olympic swimmer. Holder of seven world records (three individual, four relay). Winner of 28 Olympic medals, 23 of them gold.
Now 31, Phelps also holds another distinction: he may be the most famous athlete ever caught smoking marijuana.
It was in February 2009, when Phelps was photographed at a party taking a hit from a bong. He ended up being suspended from competition for three months, and he lost a sponsorship deal with the Kellogg food company.
To his credit, Phelps apologized for his actions, blaming them on his age (he was 23) and what he described as his “bad judgment.”
Since that time, other than a few interviews, Phelps has been mum on the issue. But like it or not, he has become the poster boy for those who claim that marijuana can actually enhance athletic performance.
Some claim that marijuana provides a boost during actual competition, though that likely would violate any number of substance use rules. (Phelps, one of the most closely observed athletes in history, has never failed a drug test.) But it could help in other ways as well.
A 2009 Forbes magazine story claimed that “many top athletes in a variety of sports use marijuana because of its medical effects as a painkiller, muscle relaxant and antidepressant.”
Among those athletes named in the article: former Miami Dolphins running back Ricky Williams, former Dallas Cowboys lineman Mark Stepnoski, WWE wrestler Rob Van Dam, former NBA player Charles Oakley and Canadian snowboarder Ross Rebagliati (who won a gold medal during the 1998 Winter Olympics).
“After a game, you need something to relax,” said Stepnoski, who retired in 2001. “I’d rather smoke than take painkillers.”
As with most issues involving marijuana, such information is largely anecdotal. Though now legal in one form or another in 28 states and the District of Columbia, marijuana is still considered by the U.S. to be a Schedule 1 controlled substance – placing it in the same category as heroin and LSD. At least as a partial consequence, studies on the effects of marijuana usage have been sorely lacking.
Even anecdotally, marijuana has as many critics as it does supporters. Yes, Men’s Journal cited elite triathlete Clifford Drusinsky as someone who believes marijuana is a good training aid.
“Marijuana relaxes me and allows me to go into a controlled, meditational place,” Drusinsky said. “When I get high, I train smarter and focus on form.”
On the other hand, a 2006 report by the British Journal of Sports Medicine stated that regular use of cannabis may result in “changes in behavior during training as well as inconsistent performance, concentration, or motivation.”
In covering the same topic, Business Insider magazine retorted that, ironically, “decreased anxiety can lead to dangerous decisions.” Or merely stupid ones, as Phelps can bear witness to.
Health questions persist as well. “There is also a temporary elevated heart rate associated with consuming marijuana,” said the Business Insider article, “which could be a negative side effect for athletes and a risky complication for anyone with a pre-existing heart condition.”
And the legal consequences bear mentioning. Even in Washington, where marijuana use is legal, you aren’t allowed to consume in public. Nor are you allowed to drive while under the influence.
Schools, too, have their own rules regarding both drug and alcohol use. The Washington Interscholastic Activities Association adopted strict regulations “intended to discourage the use of alcohol, tobacco, legal drugs, controlled substances and paraphernalia.” Violation of such rules could lead to ineligibility.
Overall, then, the jury is still out on whether the overall effects of marijuana on athletes is good or bad. In some obvious ways, however, the detriments clearly outweigh the attributes.
Particularly if you hope to see your face on a cereal box.