Disgraced at Olympics Over Marijuana, Snowboarder Hopes to Ride to Cannabis Success
Posted November 2, 2018 10:46 p.m. EDT
Updated November 2, 2018 10:54 p.m. EDT
KELOWNA, British Columbia — Ross Rebagliati, a pioneering Olympic snowboarder, keeps his gold medal hidden inside a beat-up cabinet in his modest home, next to an ashtray holding his car keys and a plastic bag of weed.
“I keep it there because it has brought me nothing but misfortune,” said Rebagliati, with more than a hint of wistfulness. It was noon and he was enjoying a freshly rolled joint, his fourth of the day, from his comfortable living room.
His gold front tooth, adorned with half a cannabis leaf, glinted as he smiled, momentarily giving him the air of a comic book villain. But Rebagliati, a soft-spoken former Canadian Olympian, appears far too gentle — and too stoned — to do harm in the world.
Twenty years ago, when he was 26, Rebagliati came to global fame — and infamy — after winning a gold medal in the giant slalom at the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics in Japan. But his Olympic dreams subsequently imploded after he tested positive for cannabis and was stripped of the medal.
Soon, he recalled, he found himself in a Japanese jail cell, accused of importing a controlled substance. Many Canadians, still feeling the shame of sprinter Ben Johnson losing his Olympic gold medal in 1988 in Seoul after testing positive for anabolic steroids, were aghast.
Rebagliati, for his part, protested that he had not smoked pot for 10 months before the games and that the minuscule amount of THC, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana, found in his system had come from inhaling secondhand smoke at parties.
In the end, he said, his title was unceremoniously returned to him after 36 hours of “hell,” on the grounds that cannabis was not on the list of banned substances. He took his gold medal, which he had not yet given back, out of his front pocket and held it up for the television cameras. But he did not put it back around his neck.
But for Rebagliati, the damage was irreparable. Appearing on “The Tonight Show” with Jay Leno immediately after the Olympics, the host referred to him as “nickel bag-liati,” joking that “unlike Clinton, you inhaled but didn’t smoke.” A mocking skit on “Saturday Night Live” ensured that his image as the poster boy for pot was seared into global popular culture.
And he was never able to cash in fully on his fame. “Cannabis back then was seen as being for losers and lazy stoners,” he recalled. “The big corporate sponsors didn’t want to sponsor me. I became a source of entertainment, a joke. I went from hero to zero overnight.”
Now 47, Rebagliati lives a quiet life in Kelowna, a mountainous winemaking city in British Columbia, with his second wife, Ali, a yoga instructor, and their two young children, Rosie, 6, and Rocco, 3. He also has a son, Ryan, who is 9, with his first wife.
Rebagliati is hoping that Canada’s action to legalize marijuana last month will bring him closure, business opportunity and, perhaps most importantly, vindication. Emboldened by the end of the marijuana prohibition, he recently launched Legacy, a new cannabis lifestyle brand, teaming up with CRX, a cannabis health care company based in Calgary. He plans to sell items like marijuana-infused face creams, cannabis plant-growing kits and Ross Rebagliati-branded skis and snowboards.
“I am finally reclaiming my marijuana legacy,” he says, explaining the company’s name.
Jodie Emery, a leading Canadian cannabis activist, said Rebagliati’s attempt to join the “green rush” that has accompanied cannabis legalization reflected the rapidly shifting attitudes toward marijuana. “Those like Ross who were vilified are now finding redemption.” she said.
Maybe so, but the trajectory of Rebagliati’s life has sometimes been as treacherous as an Olympic halfpipe run. After returning home from the Olympics to Whistler, the picturesque ski town and resort he then called home, he enjoyed his newfound celebrity for a while, even sharing a joint backstage with Keith Richards at a Rolling Stones concert in Denver. But disappointed by his gold medal having failed to deliver on its promises, he quit competitive snowboarding in 1999. Deprived of the discipline, he turned inward. He became a recluse, living in a camper by a lake.
He bought and sold real estate, initially investing some of his snowboarding winnings, and he hoped to build a luxury hotel. But he went into debt when the property market crashed after the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and he was forced to eke out a living as a builder. His first marriage ended in divorce.
Things became so bad, he recalled, that he turned the number 9 upside down on the address sign of his gate to keep the “repo man” away. “There were times when I didn’t have money to buy food,” he said. “I didn’t even have two pennies to buy weed.”
For a one-time Olympic golden boy, it was a precipitous fall.
Born in a Vancouver suburb he characterized as having “big houses and progressive politics” to a geologist father and an accountant mother, Rebagliati became a skiing prodigy before he was 10 and he was being groomed for the Canadian national ski team. But he discovered snowboarding at 15, around the same time he tried marijuana for the first time, and was immediately drawn to the sport’s baggy pants and freewheeling, iconoclastic spirit. Snowboarding, which was born in Vermont and California in the late 1970s, was slow to catch on. Rebagliati recalled that at ski areas in California, snowboarders were often banned and ski patrols would call the police to complain that riders were trespassing.
When he was unable to find a snowboard in a ski shop in British Columbia while he was in high school, Rebagliati built a makeshift snowboard from plywood, cutting off the toes of his ski boots and using the inner tube of a bike as a strap to hold his feet in place. He and his friends would train by sneaking into ski resorts in the Vancouver area before ski season began and hiking up the mountains.
“I loved snowboarding because you had sole responsibility for your own performance,” he said. “It requires strength and agility when you pull out of the start gate and then gravity takes over. At the Olympics I was going 77 miles an hour. It’s a rush.”
But when his parents discovered his plans to abandon professional skiing in favor of snowboarding, they kicked him out of the house, furious that, in their view, they had squandered so much money on his ski training.
Before long, Rebagliati was training as a snowboarder 200 days a year, winning international competitions, and having his face splashed on the covers of snowboarding magazines.
Cannabis was part of snowboarding’s rebel culture in the 1980s and 1990s. On his way to one World Cup competition, he recalled, he and another teammate hid their hashish in the gums of their mouths to avoid arrest near the Swiss border.
The long shadow of Nagano finally proved too much in 2012, when he wanted to take his newborn daughter Rosie to visit his mother in Palm Springs, California, but was turned away at the Washington state border, because of his association with cannabis.
“I thought if I am going to be ostracized because of what happened at the Olympics, I might as well embrace it,” he said.
One year later, he founded Ross’ Gold, a cannabis company, and began selling, among other things, $19,000 gold-plated bongs. But the company collapsed, hampered by marijuana’s illegal status.
Today, Rebagliati says he is happy that marijuana is losing its stigma, even in the world of sports. “Athletes love cannabis because, among other things, it improves concentration and is fat-free and calorie-free,” he said.
He golfs, races cars, grows prized marijuana plants in his backyard and enjoys smoking his favorite potent strain of “Bruce Banner” marijuana, named after the Incredible Hulk. For a while, he flirted with the idea of a career in national politics, but abandoned plans to run for Parliament. He no longer rides a snowboard, preferring to ski instead for the challenge, he says.
And while his life appears to be turning around, he said the gold medal would remain in the cabinet — at least for now.
“Perhaps if things change, I will finally frame it and put in on the wall,” he said, quickly adding, “I don’t have plans to hang it any time soon.”