Back in 1998, Canadian snowboarder Ross Rebagliati became the first Olympian to win gold in snowboarding -- a new event introduced at the 18th Olympic Winter Games held in Nagano, Japan. But soon after, he tested positive for marijuana use and became the first Olympic snowboarder to lose his medal. (He later regained it through an appeal.)
However, with the International Olympic Committee's new rules on testing for cannabis, Rebagliati wouldn't have gotten in trouble in the first place.
Times are changing
In 2014, the IOC quietly liberalized their marijuana drug policy. Although cannabis still appears on the list of banned drugs issued by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), which oversees drug testing in the Olympics and other sporting events, WADA has raised the threshold for a positive test considerably.
In 2014, Paul Waldie of the Globe and Mail reported that the accepted level of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) in an athlete's system has been raised considerably, from 15 nanograms per millilitre of urine to 150 ng/ml. Rebagliati tested positive with 17.8 ng/ml, so he would be in the clear by today's standards. And so would most athletes.
"Officials say...an athlete who smoked some weed before the Olympics, or inhaled second-hand smoke, wouldn't likely test positive," wrote Waldie. "Someone who failed the new test would have to be 'a pretty dedicated cannabis consumer,' WADA officials have said."
The rules were altered to reflect changes in the legality of marijuana. Arne Ljungqvist - a member of WADA and the International Olympic Committee - told Waldie that the threshold was raised because "[marijuana] is socially more or less an accepted drug being used in social context."
And while it remains on WADA's blacklist, cannabis is listed among substances that are banned for moral reasons.
"WADA also uses three criteria for including drugs on its banned list; performance enhancement, danger to health and a violation of the spirit of sport," Waldie explained. "Marijuana generally falls under the last criteria, which is a nebulous concept that includes ethics, honesty and respect for self and other participants."
So athletes are asked to be good sports and refrain from marijuana, but they won't likely lose a medal over having a joint now and then.
Athletes might not get stripped of their medals for using cannabis, but the acceptability of marijuana among Olympians isn't likely to change anytime soon. In 2012, ESPN's Devon O'Neil wrote a feature story about Olympians and alcohol sponsorships, which athletes tend to shun because of the impact those deals could have on their public image.
After noting that some surfing and cycling athletes have dabbled in pitching alcohol, O'Neil writes: "Still, the surprising figure is not how many athletes have alcohol sponsorships but how many don't - a reflection of the danger involved for both sides, despite rich potential. Consider the case of snowboarder Scotty Lago. The 2010 Olympic bronze medalist in halfpipe... is also one of the sport's most popular film stars and most marketable athletes. Yet when Jose Cuervo representatives expressed interest in sponsoring him, his agent, Circe Wallace, said they declined because the potential risk exceeded the reward."
That risk involves potential damage to an athlete's reputation -- especially among minors.
"Ultimately, when you're gearing toward a young demographic, and as an ambassador for your sport, to encourage drinking is a questionable move," Lago's agent told ESPN. "It's probably better for your long-term earning to remain somewhat neutral. I would only recommend it during an athlete's twilight years, or if they're involved with something gnarly like big-wave surfing that appeals to a more mature audience."
So recreational marijuana use will likely remain taboo in Olympic sport for some time.
Could Michael Phelps counter biases?
Rebagliati's failed cannabis test was a huge scandal. But arguably the biggest marijuana controversy in Olympic history involved American swimmer Michael Phelps. The most decorated Olympian got into hot water in 2009 when a picture of him smoking a bong circulated.
Phelps admitted that the picture was authentic, apologized to fans and accepted the repercussions, which included a three-month suspension from USA Swimming and the discontinuation of his Kellogg's sponsorship.
But he rebounded from that career low by storming the podium at the 2012 Olympics in London. And he was recently chosen to be America's flag bearer during the opening ceremonies at the 2016 games in Rio de Janeiro, which begin this Friday. Phelps isn't a cannabis advocate, nor has he spoken out against marijuana prohibition. But the fact that he can go from America's fallen star to its standard bearer in such short order suggests that attitudes toward cannabis can change - and fast.
Banner Image: Michael Phelps (USA) competing in the mens 200m butterfly final at the 13th Fina World Aquatics in 2009. (Mitch Gunn / Shutterstock.com)