Will Weed Keep Skateboarding Out of the Olympics?

Skateboarders and snowboarders have one thing in common that the Olympics isn't into.

Snowboarding’s first Olympic gold medalist, Ross Rebagliati, nearly lost his medal in 1998 after an Olympic drug test found pot in his system. Will skateboarding’s first medalists face the same scrutiny? Not likely.

For the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, five new sports have been proposed as additions to the standard 28. Baseball and karate to appeal to the Japanese audience, plus skateboarding, surfing, and sport climbing to appeal to the coveted youth demographic that the Olympics and their advertisers want to reach. The International Olympic Committee will announce which sports will be added in August, at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. 

Image via Oscar Rivera Evans

Skateboarding is about as un-Olympic of a “sport” as you can get. Many skaters hesitate even to call skateboarding a sport at all and liken it more to an art form that can not be quantified or ranked by judges. But skateboard contests have been around almost as long as skateboarding itself. Today’s contests bring in big bucks and big audiences in that hot 18-to-24-year-old demographic. This hits at the “Value add” the Olympics are looking for new sports to bring to the games. The problem some see is marijuana.

Skateboarding isn’t afraid to use pot to sell products. Just look at HUF’s super successful “plant life” socks or the countless pot themed pro models. Pot sells. Pro skaters are regularly seen in magazines, videos, and on social media indulging in pot. However, pot is a banned substance by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), and compliance with the WADA Code is one of the criteria the Olympics uses to evaluate a sport for inclusion in the Olympic games.

The WADA was formed in 1999 and is responsible for deciding which substances are banned and what constitutes doping in the Olympics. These substances are banned because they violate at least one of three criteria: Performance enhancement, danger to an athlete's health, or a violation of the spirit of sport.

The list of banned substances is a living document, changed and updated to reflect the current scientific and cultural thinking. Caffeine was once a banned substance but was removed from the list in 2003 after experts deemed it to be too ubiquitous. In 1998, the International Olympic Committee added pot to its list of banned substances right before forming the WADA.

Since then, two U.S. athletes tested positive for pot and were kicked out of the 2012 Summer games. Michael Phelps was caught taking bong rips, and plenty of other professional athletes have been caught or admitted to using pot recreationally or as a recovery aid. In 2013, pot accounted for 3.6 percent of positive tests conducted by the WADA, making weed the sixth biggest drug violation just below Peptide Hormones and Growth Factors. Pot is clearly not an issue for professional skateboarding alone.

In the end, most skaters feel that, “The Olympics needs skateboarding more than skateboarding needs the Olympics.”

The WADA’s original threshold for pot was 15 nanograms per milliliter. Snowboarding’s first Olympic gold medalist, Ross Rebagliati, was temporarily stripped of his medal after an Olympic drug test found pot in his system. He had 17.8 nanograms per milliliter in his sample. This was right before pot was added to the list of banned substances; so Rebagliati was able to retain his medal but his reputation was tarnished in some circles.

The 15 nanograms per milliliter threshold meant even those exposed to secondhand smoke, as Rebagliati claimed he was, where at risk of violating the rules. The new standard set in 2014 allows for up to 150 nanograms per milliliter in an athlete’s system. This means secondhand smoke and casual use outside the Olympic drug testing period should be okay. An athlete would have to be a "pretty dedicated cannabis consumer" to test positive, according to Allen St. Pierre of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML).

A heavy pot smoker would need to lay off for a few weeks before the Games and other sanctioned events to be in the clear to compete. The WADA can test athletes from the time the Olympic village opens to the closing ceremony, so pot based celebrations must be conducted after the official end of the games. The top five finishers will be tested along with two at random immediately after the event. Results take between 24 to 48 hours. Athletes who tests positive can ask that their B sample, a second sample given at the same time as the first, be tested and are allowed to be present for the testing of the B sample. It's up to the IOC, the sport’s governing body, and the athlete’s home country’s National Committee to decide if a violation occurred and what punishment should be given.

Unlike many sports, skateboarding cares little for contest results and looks more toward style, image, and video parts to set a pecking order. That being said, those in the skateboarding community have been thinking about the Olympics. Bones team manager Jared Lucas tells THE KIND, “I feel as though it's just a matter of time before this is all systems go.” He would tell his riders that, “Having the opportunity to market themselves and their sponsors to the mainstream market on this scale is well worth the sobriety.”

However not all skaters are alike. Mike Sinclair, team manager for Tum Yeto brands, says,“It's just the rider's choice, and most riders that I personally know would rather smoke weed than go to the Olympics.”

Unlike the other sports in contention for a spot in the 2020 games, skateboarding lacks a real governing body. Skateboarders have never been subjected to drug testing. Even surfers and rock climbers have had to pee in cups for officials. Drug testing at other events is a requirement of the IOC’s evaluation criteria; so sobriety requirements would extend to other events leading up to the Olympics as well as at the games themselves. Even climbing has even seen athletes taken out of competition for weed findings. The 2015 Kimberley Cup in South Africa was the first event where skateboarders had been tested for drugs.

In the end, most skaters, including former DVS and Matix team manager Gabe Clement, feel that, “The Olympics needs skateboarding more than skateboarding needs the Olympics.”

If skateboarding makes it into the Olympics, the competing skaters are sure to reap rewards for their time in the global spotlight. That opportunity for glory and monetization should be plenty of incentive for them to stay sober.

For skateboarders who make their money on their image—not on contest results—getting kicked out of the Olympics for pot might be the kind of PR boon the right skater could use to make the next million.