The national governing body for triathlon will become the first organization of its type to sign a deal with a company that sells products containing cannabidiol.

The cycling portion of the Ironman triathlon in Kona, Hawaii, this month.
The cycling portion of the Ironman triathlon in Kona, Hawaii, this month.CreditTom Pennington/Getty Images for Ironman

By Matthew Futterman

The sports industry’s embrace of cannabis products is continuing to evolve as U.S.A. Triathlon has become the first national governing body of an American sport to make a sponsorship deal with a company that sells products containing cannabidiol, or CBD.

CBD is a nonintoxicating compound that, like the intoxicating compound THC, is found in varying amounts in hemp, a legal cannabis plant. In 2018, the World Anti-Doping Agency removed CBD from its list of banned substances. THC and scores of other cannabinoids remain on the banned list, but by removing CBD, WADA opened the door for elite athletes to use and endorse CBD products.

CBD’s benefits are said to include preventing pain and inflammation, relieving stress and anxiety and even aiding digestion. CBD products are available in several forms, including oils and lotions.

The financial terms of the four-year deal between U.S.A. Triathlon and Pure Spectrum, which is based in Colorado, were not disclosed. It came less than a year after Congress passed the Farm Bill, which legalized hemp. Growing the plant had been against federal law for many years. Since then, sports organizations have tiptoed toward CBD and its growing business. Much of the population knows little about CBD. There are some who still associate it with the more illicit uses of marijuana, which remains illegal at the federal level and in many states, even though it has been decriminalized in some.

U.S.A. Triathlon’s exclusive deal with Pure Spectrum will help the relatively small national governing body support growth of the sport while trying to keep fees for races and other costs associated with the triathlon at a reasonable level.

Membership in U.S.A. Triathlon declined about 25 percent from 2013 to 2018. Interest in the sport increased significantly after it became part of the Olympics in 2000, but has waned in recent years for a variety of reasons, though triathlon boosters say they have reversed some of those trends.

U.S.A. Triathlon has annual revenues of about $16 million. About $2 million, or roughly 12 to 15 percent, comes from sponsorships.

Athletes at every level — who are often some of the earliest adopters of anything that can help people feel better, recover from workouts or improve performance — have embraced CBD. Rocky Harris, chief executive of U.S.A. Triathlon, said the movement to embrace CBD among participants in the sport led his organization on a six-month endeavor to determine the actual risks and benefits of CBD and whether U.S.A. Triathlon could responsibly pursue making money through a sponsorship deal with a CBD company.

“We needed to be able to say if you use this product you will not fail a drug test,” Harris said.

U.S.A. Triathlon is not the only sports organization that has a relationship with a CBD company. The Ultimate Fighting Championship and CrossFit also do. However, the risk for a national governing body of an Olympic sport is higher because those organizations have to abide by all WADA regulations and submit to the most intense drug testing protocols. Privately controlled athletic organizations, such as the major American sports leagues, can choose to make up their own rules and drug policies.