It’s been a long road, but the Olympic torch finally landed in Japan on 23 July. The latest edition of the Games has been so mired in difficulty that many feared it might not go ahead, with COVID-19 causing seemingly insurmountable logistical issues. It’s also seen its fair share of controversies, with the conversation around cannabis chief among them.
The 2020 Games in Tokyo is effectively the first in which professional athletes have been allowed to use cannabis-based products while preparing for the competition. CBD use among professional athletes has been allowed by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) since 2018, and it’s becoming increasingly popular.
In this article, I’ll explore the growing role that cannabis-based substances can play in sports, the main regulatory barriers in the way of development, and the exciting opportunities that may arise as cannabis in sport becomes normalised.
The athletic case for CBD
In the run up to this year’s Games, a growing procession of athletes have endorsed the use of CBD-based products. Although some of these endorsements are facilitated by sponsorship deals between athletes and CBD manufacturers, it’s without a doubt that stars across different disciplines are taking advantage of cannabinoids.
The list of advocates includes a number of top-tier athletes: from world record-holding sprinter Micheale Frater and golf star Catriona Matthew, to the NFL’s Rob Gronkowski and Eugene Monroe, heptathlete Chari Hawkins and former boxer Mike Tyson.
In a study conducted last year at Liverpool John Moores University, 517 professional rugby players were asked about CBD use. A quarter revealed using it at some point as part of their training practice and 8% said they continued to do so.
How can athletes benefit from CBD?
In terms of CBD-based products specifically aimed at athletes, the majority are used to aid muscle and joint recovery. These products come in different forms (from balms, to body creams) and have a relatively low CBD content – 3% or less. Any CBD products marketed to athletes need to use highly refined extracts, as there’s a fair chance that more simple “broad spectrum products” may still contain banned substances (if you want to know more about different cannabis extraction processes and the many opportunities arising in the cannabis extracts space check out Prohibition Partner’s Cannabis Extraction Report).
Outside of recovery, CBD can help athletes maintain a more regular sleeping pattern, and can play a part in improving their general mental wellbeing between training sessions.
The potential benefits of CBD in sport are brought into sharper focus when you consider the alternatives: in many cases, highly addictive opioids. These medications are prominent, particularly within physically demanding sports. Having said that, opioids remain highly unpopular among athletes. The majority would absolutely avoid using them if offered effective alternatives, as it’s the case for professional football stars. In February, the association of NFL players (NFLPA) started an official process to identify alternatives to opioids for pain management and non-intoxicating cannabinoids, like CBD, are among the remedies they are looking at.
An industry ready to change the game
According to Prohibition Partners’ estimates, European sales of CBD-based products will be worth €2.3 billion in 2021. We forecast that, after rapid expansion, growth rates are likely to stabilise across European CBD markets. Growth thus far has been driven primarily by increasing awareness of perceived health and wellness benefits of cannabinoids, as well as the rise in acceptance of cannabis-based products in general across much of Europe’s largest markets.
Moving forward, we expect established CBD markets to decrease slightly in size as a result of uncommitted users decreasing or halting their usage. However, this effect will largely be offset by faster growth in nascent markets, where CBD products are more novel, and closer towards the beginning of their growth cycle.
For consumer products in sectors like wellness and cosmetics, public preference can change quickly, with new alternatives almost always waiting in the wings. Consumers in these spaces are generally willing to try whatever hot new product is taking the market by storm, before moving onto the next treatment when it becomes the flavour of the month.
As the novelty effect slows, my projection is that different segments of the CBD market will start to show diverging levels of performance. The ultimate differentiation will be the capacity to solve some real world problems.
All things considered, it’s reasonable to expect CBD in sport to flourish over the next few years. CBD for athletes is one of the fastest-growing topicals in the cannabis world. Its success is primarily due to the fact that it helps to tackle a number of different problems that athletes commonly face. There’s plenty of anecdotal evidence that CBD is an effective supplement and a growing body of medical research is emerging to support these claims.
When you consider the fact that the legislative framework is underdeveloped, holding the market back from reaching its full potential, the scope of the opportunity broadens. It’s indicative of the current situation that many athletes who used CBD to prepare for the Olympics opted not to bring their products to Tokyo, to avoid falling foul of Japanese regulations.
THC is still taboo in athletics
If CBD has taken centre stage at the Olympics, THC still has a marathon to run. Before the Games, the world was rocked by the news that US sprinter Sha’Carri Richardson would be excluded from competing after she tested positive for cannabis. The case ignited a debate so widespread it reportedly involved the White House and the US Congress. However taboo it may be, many feel that professional athletes should be allowed to use cannabis freely, without risking a ban.
The case for THC in sports is delicate. Firstly, despite the WHO and the UN considers cannabis as a medicine, to date THC is still treated as an illegal narcotic in most countries and it would be unrealistic to expect sports authorities to push for more progressive legislation than governments. Secondly, it’s still a matter of debate if THC should be considered a performance enhancing substance.
Having said that, in jurisdictions where THC is legal, tentative steps towards its normalisation in sports are being taken. The Nevada State Athletic Commission recently lifted its ban on athletes using cannabis – this is the authority that sets rules for the main global mixed martial arts (MMA) federation UFC and for all matches taking place in Las Vegas.
In a related move, the NBA is continuing its policy of waiving random cannabis tests for the 2020/21 season. Testing was initially suspended in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, with the players isolating in a so-called “bubble” in Orlando. MLB, similarly, has clarified that players may use cannabis so long as they refrain during training and matches, and that they avoid commercial relationships with companies operating in the cannabis sector.
Despite all of these positive signals, it seems unlikely that we’ll see athletes freely using THC any time soon. It takes time to shake off a taboo. One thing that is for certain, however, is that the growing number of conversations around cannabis in sport is a sign of the wider normalisation of the product within society.
In 2009, 23-time gold medal winner Michael Phelps was suspended and made to publicly repent after a photograph emerged of him smoking a bong. It’s good to see that, just a decade later, cannabis is making the headlines in sport for very different reasons.
Cannabis is stepping out into the mainstream in just about every realm of popular culture, and sport is no exception. The wheels are in motion for CBD (and perhaps even THC) to play an increasing role in sport.
Barbara is a leading expert on the international cannabis industry. She has done substantial work on emerging cannabis markets such as Europe, Latin America and Africa. Barbara heads Research & Consulting at Prohibition Partners, the foremost source of independent data, analysis and intelligence for the cannabis industry.
She has extensive experience in managing and executing strategic consulting projects in a variety of heavily regulated sectors ranging from Oil & Gas to transportation and FMCG. Previous to Prohibition Partners, she covered various positions in General Electric, Wood Mackenzie and KLB Group. Barbara is a graduate in Political Science and International Relations from LUISS University and holds a MSc in Petroleum and Energy Economics and Finance from the University of Aberdeen.
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