Olympic Movement Shows How Cannabis And Surfing Have Both Gone Mainstream

The second the Olympic flame was extinguished in Rio, athletes and fans began dreaming about the 2020 games in Tokyo, which will feature surfing as an event for the first time. It's a major milestone for a sport that has slowly been emerging from a countercultural pastime - where it was synonymous with marijuana, beach blonde hair and gnarly slang - to a legitimate athletic event.

But some think that elevating surfing is cutting it off from its roots. 

"Part of [surfing's] appeal is that it is counter-cultural, marginal and in some way subversive and that's where the association with drugs comes in, whether real or mythic," Andy Martin - author of several surfing books - told The Guardian's Patrick Kingsley in 2012. "But the commercial imperatives require [surfers] to be straight. How mainstream can surfing be before losing its soul?"

Not all surfers consider the sport's acceptance in mainstream culture as a bad thing.

"I see this as a massively positive thing," Corinne Evans - a British surf teacher and surf-wear model - told The Guardian.

"The more seriously the sport takes itself, the more companies will be willing to invest, and the faster the sport will grow. This has been a long time coming...People think we're all layabouts who get high the whole time. But the vast majority of us just enjoy the healthy lifestyle that comes with the sport."

Marijuana advocates have been preaching a very similar message over the years. And the fact that perceptions of both are changing at the same time doesn't seem coincidental considering how stereotypes of potheads and surfers have intersected in pop culture. If you're unfamiliar with the crossover, take a look at Exhibit A: the cannabis caricature Jeff Spicoli (Sean Penn) from Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982).

Is surf culture endangered?

But the interests of marketers could drive a wedge between cannabis and surf culture. In 2012, ESPN's Devon O'Neil reported that Olympians tend to shun alcohol sponsorships because of the impact those deals could have on their public image. Fans of the games tend to skew young, O'Neill discovered, so pitching alcohol - let alone marijuana - could tarnish an Olympian's reputation among younger demographics.

Crafting an acceptable public image for surfing might also be tricky for advertisers because many athletes grew up believing that marijuana was an essential part of their training. 

"There was a view in Hawaii that marijuana smoking in particular was actually good for surfing because you increase your lung capacity with all that drawing in of the smoke," Martin told The Guardian. "The more marijuana, the better the surfer."

That made refereeing the sport difficult for drug testers. In fact, the Association of Surfing Professionals (which has since been rebranded as the World Surf League) used to avoid testing athletes because the results would be unfavorable for the sport. 

"There was zero drug-testing, period, done by the ASP," former ASP Media Director Melissa Buckley told Outside Online in 2011. "There were just too many guys that wouldn't pass."

Olympics now more friendly to pro-cannabis athletes

But they probably would pass the drug tests at the Olympics - if they paced their cannabis consumption. Surfing is set to debut at a time when it's never been safer for pro-cannabis Olympians to compete.

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 from 15 nanograms per millilitre of urine to 150 ng/ml. Waldie says that means "an athlete who smoked some weed before the Olympics, or inhaled second-hand smoke, wouldn't likely test positive. Someone who failed the new test would have to be 'a pretty dedicated cannabis consumer,' [drug testing] officials have said."

Another official told Waldie that the new rules were adopted because "[marijuana] is socially more or less an accepted drug being used in social context."

So surfing is entering the Olympics at just the right time as society's attitudes toward the sport and marijuana are normalizing. But for people invested in the subversive roots of cannabis and surfing, only time will tell if this changes will mark the end or a new chapter in their culture as they know it.

h/t The Globe and Mail, ESPN, The Guardian, Outside.


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