For the first time in the Olympics 125-year modern history, elite athletes are being open about their use of cannabis products to prepare them for the world’s biggest stage in sports. Leading the charge is Olympic gold medalist and U.S. Soccer Women’s National Team star Megan Rapinoe, who incorporates CBD into her training routine using products from Mendi, a company founded by her sister Rachael Rapinoe and Brett Schwager.
Mendi’s founders started the company to create a brand of hemp-derived cannabidiol (CBD) products that provide athletes with natural wellness solutions to help them recover better and perform at their best. And while Mendi has assembled a team of top athletes as brand ambassadors, the company hopes to tap into a market of consumers looking for a more natural approach to health and wellness.
“We really believe there is a movement and a flood of people wanting healthier alternative medications. They don’t want what we typically have been prescribed in this country, whether it’s over-the-counter meds, prescription opiates, sleeping pills, or various tools to help with stress and anxiety,” Rachael Rapinoe says in a Zoom interview. “So, we want to give people the healthiest option to stay on top of their game longer, specifically positioned with athletes.”
Besides Megan Rapinoe, Mendi’s team of athlete ambassadors heading to the Summer Olympics kicking off in Tokyo this week includes hurdler Devon Allen, softball outfielder Hayley McCleney and WNBA champion and four-time Olympic gold medalist Sue Bird, who is engaged to be married to Megan and will serve as a flagbearer at Friday’s Olympic opening ceremony.
But while the athletes have been using CBD leading up to the competition, they will not be able to bring with them to Japan the gummies and topical sticks they’ve been relying on for relief from the stress and strain of competing. Given the regulatory environment that makes taking products made from cannabis (including hemp) across international borders risky and Japan’s strict anti-cannabis laws, it’s safer to leave their CBD regimen at home. It’s a point Rachael makes clear during our conversation.
“Although cannabis is on the world stage for the first time ever, we’re not saying that it’s there in Tokyo,” she stresses. “What we’re saying is, ‘we’ve been there on the journey to get these athletes to the world’s biggest stage, and they’ve been taking our products every day for the past year or two years to help them with marginal gains.’ Every time you get a better night’s sleep, every time you recover better from the last batch of exercise, then your performance is going to be better the next time.”
Changing Views On Cannabis And Sports
The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) removed CBD (but not other cannabinoids) from its list of prohibited substances in September 2017. But the change was not effective until January 1, 2018, giving Olympic athletes little time to incorporate CBD into their training programs for the winter games being held the following month in South Korea, another country with strict cannabis laws. The legalization of hemp via the 2018 Farm Bill further reduced the perceived risk of using CBD for many athletes.
THC, however, remains on the list of banned substances, as much of the world learned earlier this month with the suspension and disqualification of sprinter and Olympic hopeful Sha’Carri Richardson after she tested positive for the compound primarily responsible for the “high” associated with marijuana.
Rachael says that during her tenure as a professional soccer player, she was often prescribed powerful drugs including opiates to help her manage the pain from the many injuries she endured. Unfortunately, effective natural remedies were not available, a fact that didn’t sit well with her.
“I come from a long history of drug addiction in my family, particularly heroin and opiates,” she explains. “So, I have an interesting emotional relationship with drugs.”
With the change in WADA policy that allows athletes to take advantage of the benefits of cannabidiol, Megan says that she has been using a variety of CBD formulations that help her stay at the top of her game.
“CBD has become part of my all-natural recovery system that I use throughout the day to help with pain and inflammation, stabilize my mood and get better sleep. Instead of taking Advil or other pain management meds, I’ve almost exclusively substituted with Mendi CBD products,” Megan Rapinoe writes via email. “I use them right after training, pop in a gummy or gel capsule for pain and to calm me down, then another gummy in the afternoon to relax, then the night tincture right before bed for better sleep. It’s truly part of my entire day.”
Megan says that besides relieving her physical ailments, the CBD gummies she takes daily help her mood and mental health.
“It’s my go-to to calm me down after a hard training or game, as well as for sleep,” she explains. “I’ve noticed a significant difference in my stress and anxiety levels when I am consistently using Mendi CBD products versus when I don’t.”
Megan says that she is “really bummed about” about not being able to take CBD to Japan, adding that they have “been instrumental the past two years in all aspects of my life, so it’s quite frustrating that I can’t use them to compete on the world’s biggest stage.”
Should THC Be OK For Athletes, Too?
With CBD now allowed under WADA rules, many athletes are also looking ahead to a time when the entire cannabis plant, including THC, is available for their use. Until then, using marijuana as a source of cannabinoids will continue to be a risky proposition.
“Sha’Carri Richardson, unfortunately, wanted to use a healthier alternative to manage the stress that was going on in her life, and now she’s banned from this year’s Olympics,” Rachael says. “Every athlete should have the same access that every other Americans do to deal with the stresses of life,” noting that “existing policies are not working.”
Megan agrees, saying marijuana, THC and all cannabinoids available to the public in many jurisdictions should also be available to athletes.
“We’re expected to perform on the biggest stages and highest levels, yet we can’t use all-natural products to help us recover,” she writes. “It’s not right, and these policies need to be changed to reflect where our culture is.”
Megan also noted that the rules and laws banning cannabis have routinely been enforced disproportionately, with communities of color often bearing the brunt of prohibition. She says that it is time “to acknowledge the harm these policies and laws around THC have caused” and expand cannabis policy reform to all.
“The societal effect in terms of social justice that weed has had on this country is just absurd,” Megan says. “There are so many, mostly Black and Brown, people sitting in jail for 10 or 20-plus years for weed, and it’s completely unnecessary. From a social perspective, we’re long overdue for the legalization of cannabis.”