Ross Rebagliati tells his story 20 years after Olympic controversy

Yahoo Canada Sports
Ross Rebagliati of Canada skis to victory in the first-ever Men’s Giant Slalom snowboarding competition Sunday Feb. 8, 1998 in Yamanouchi, Japan. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)
Ross Rebagliati of Canada skis to victory in the first-ever Men’s Giant Slalom snowboarding competition Sunday Feb. 8, 1998 in Yamanouchi, Japan. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)

On Feb. 8, 1998, Canadian Ross Rebagliati became the first Olympic gold medallist in the inaugural Snowboarding: Men’s Giant Slalom event, but his celebration was short lived. Rebagliati quickly tested positive for marijuana and was disqualified from the 1998 Winter Games in Nagano, Japan. He spent the following days testifying before several tribunals and interrogated by the Japanese police, but before he was ordered to give his gold medal back, the IOC discovered that marijuana was not on its list of banned substances. Rebagliati was a gold medallist once again, but that did little to positively influence the next several years of his life. Smeared with the stigma of marijuana, Rebagliati did what he felt he needed to do, devoting his life to cannabis. On the 20-year anniversary of his Olympic controversy, Rebagliati spoke with Yahoo Canada Sports editor Chase Kell. This is Ross’s story, shared in his words.

Chapter 1: The Gold Medal Race

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The first run was in the morning and it was blue skies, sunny, and the snow was super hard and icy. I made a couple of mistakes and that put me in eighth place after the first run — a tenth of a second behind the fastest time.

The second run came and the bad weather moved in. It reminded me of B.C. The temperatures dropped as well so the course was set up a little harder. I spoke with my coach who was positioned down the run and he asked if I wanted course updates. And I remember just having this confidence because I was already in eighth place. The pressure was almost off because all I had to do was ride as hard as I could — I just had to ride balls-out the whole way down if I was going to win the race. So my answer to my coach was, “What time are the awards ceremonies at?”

Then it was radio silence, the buzzer begins beeping down and I just pull out of the start gate as hard as I ever have before. My plan was basically to go straight on the top of the course, so for the first 15 to 20 gates you can see I’m turning, but if you watch the other guys their turns were much loopier than mine. I went straight for each gate and I didn’t turn — I was just doing 90 degree corners and then aiming for the next gate.

By the time I got to the turning part of the course, I was going way too fast. I had a hard time getting off of my edge and onto my next edge in time to make each corner. That giant slalom was probably one of the fastest set courses in snowboard history and I hit about 77 mph through the steepest part. If you watch the YouTube videoI really laid down one of my turns and that was the moment I thought maybe I had given it away. I was pointing the wrong way and just laid my board down like a water ski turn. It was the craziest heel-side turn of my life and I felt all my speed and momentum just come to a stop.

Ross Rebagliati heel side turn.
Ross Rebagliati heel side turn.

I felt like I just trickled over the finish line, but If you look at it I still had lots of speed going and ended up winning the race by two hundredths of a second. There were a lot of tense moments — I was pretty much out of control from beginning to end. 

Chapter 2: The Celebration

Ross Rebagliati celebrates with Italy’s Thomas Prugger and Czech Rebuplic’s Ueli Kestenholz. (Photo by Mark Sandten/Bongarts/Getty Images)
Ross Rebagliati celebrates with Italy’s Thomas Prugger and Czech Rebuplic’s Ueli Kestenholz. (Photo by Mark Sandten/Bongarts/Getty Images)

It was the first day of the Olympics, plus snowboarding’s debut at the Games. There were a lot of emotions and the magnitude wasn’t lost on anybody. Of course none of us grew up dreaming of the Olympics because snowboarding wasn’t even allowed on the ski hills 10 years before that. So for a group of athletes to all of a sudden find themselves in the Olympics, it was different.

The award ceremonies went off fairly well, even though somebody tried to steal my medal and pull it off my neck when I was walking through the crowd. In Japan, snowboarding is a pretty popular sport, so it was a big deal.

We had a fun night after the award ceremonies back up at the ski resort. One of our Canadian athletes got a little too drunk and was hanging out with an Austrian athlete, who got kicked out of Japan after the party. He was a friend of mine and was known to be a partier, but he didn’t do anything crazy — he just liked to drink beer. They’re like Canadians in Austria.

February 8, 1998: Ross Rebagliati kisses his gold medal during the snowboard medal ceremony at the 1998 Winter Olympic Games in Nagano, Japan.
February 8, 1998: Ross Rebagliati kisses his gold medal during the snowboard medal ceremony at the 1998 Winter Olympic Games in Nagano, Japan.

He was in the lobby of the hotel and somehow threw a beer into the reception area and it sprayed around and splashed one of the ladies working there. He ended up getting banned from the Olympics and sent home, but before that happened he and the Canadian athlete had stolen a big front-end loader and were driving around the parking lot clearing snow. It’s funny, you get a Canadian and an Austrian together and between the two of them, you know one of them knows how to operate heavy machinery. They ended up getting it stuck and ran back into the hotel before the Japanese police arrived.

The women still had to compete, so they were still in competition mode. But there were 120 guys that competed in the race and we were all staying in the same hotel. We were all celebrating that we were done because it was a big build up, just going room to room high-fiving each other. I had my medal with me and everyone was checking it out.

In the morning, the women were getting ready to train that day but all the men were just sitting around because we didn’t have anything to do. We were all just planning which events we were going to see and what we were going to do in the athletes’ village. It was all exciting and fun, right up until the coaches came into my room the next morning and told everybody to leave except for me and that I had better sit down.

Chapter 3: The drug test

A vendor in the Nagano train station hawks t-shirts showing a Canadian flag with a marijuana leaf substituted for a maple leaf in reference to Canadian snowboarder Ross Rebagliati. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukatyt)
A vendor in the Nagano train station hawks t-shirts showing a Canadian flag with a marijuana leaf substituted for a maple leaf in reference to Canadian snowboarder Ross Rebagliati. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukatyt)

They told me that I had tested positive for something in my drug test but they didn’t know what it was. I immediately told them it’s probably for weed because I had not been exposed to anything in my life on the list of banned substances, like steroids. So I put all of my supplements in a bag and gave it to the IOC officials to get tested and got on a shuttle bus a few minutes later — a two-hour ride down to Nagano — to lose my gold medal.

That was a horrible ride — lots of time to reflect on the decisions I made. The whole magnitude of an international scandal at the Olympics was definitely on the forefront of my mind. When we finally arrived in Nagano there were hundreds of media waiting for me. It was insane. I was met by the Canadian Olympic Committee, who helped me get off the bus and into the hotel lobby through the maze of paparazzi. I ended up quarantined in one of the rooms but I knew the lobby was full of paparazzi and that this was getting to be a real nightmare.

I had a lot of thoughts about what I wanted to do and what I wished I could do. But what I had to do was face the media and the IOC. I knew I was going to have to pay the price, and sure enough I end up on the no-fly list after 9-11 and have had travel problems ever since.

I spent a few days in Nagano going through a number of tribunals. I did one sit down with all of the members of the IOC where I explained how I got cannabis in my system despite not smoking it. That was my opportunity right then and there to be redeemed, but I lost a split decision. It was like 10 to 11, and it happened to be Dick Pound who didn’t vote for me, even though he was a Canadian. It was the first time a split decision had ever gone against an athlete as well, so we were forced to appeal the decision.

I lost the appeal, and then we appealed that and went to the court of arbitration. No gold medal had ever been reissued after it was taken away, so we weren’t looking very successful at that point.

I was on an overload of adrenaline. No sleep for multiple days. Losing weight every minute. I was in a crisis mode — I couldn’t eat a single thing. Then the police got involved.

Chapter 4: Jail time

Ross Rebagliati, eight years after his Olympic controversy in 1998.
Ross Rebagliati, eight years after his Olympic controversy in 1998.

They wanted to put me in jail for importing a controlled substance into Japan, because I had cannabis in my system. For around five to six hours I was in a very small room, like the size of a cab of a pickup truck, being interrogated by the police chief through an interpreter.

We went through a bunch of different questions about cannabis use and what it makes you feel like, the reasons why people use it, how I used it. At one point I got a cigarette from the guy and broke it open and rolled it back up again because he was like, “How do you even smoke weed?” And I’m like, “Well, you roll it up and you smoke it.” Because he couldn’t understand what I was trying to tell him, the next question was, “Everybody who smokes weed also smokes tobacco?” And I was like, “Oh my God!” They don’t know what they’re talking about here. Things got really out of control at that point, where we weren’t sure what was happening and no one had control.

Right when things started getting really intense, the court of arbitration discovered that cannabis wasn’t even on the list of banned substances in the first place. So this was all for nothing. We just assumed cannabis was on the list of banned substances for the IOC, because it was on the list of banned substances for the Snowboard Federation and for the Snowboard World Cup tour. The only thing I was worried about was cannabis, because I wasn’t taking steroids or anything else. And I was already not using marijuana during the season because I had spent a year and change on the tour before the Olympics and I was on the original World Cup pro tour before that. So I was already doing drug testing before I got to Nagano and I knew cannabis was one thing I shouldn’t be taking. I didn’t anticipate that I could get a positive test on second-hand smoke.

I did three drug tests in Canada before the Olympics and it was later discovered they all tested positive for cannabis. All of them. That information was released, but I didn’t even know about it. There were a lot more questions than answers.

Why wasn’t I alerted to that if there was a chance I could lose my gold medal? I could have easily stopped, or changed the environment I was hanging out in. I stopped using cannabis 100 percent, but I was still in the environment and I didn’t realize that was going to create these positive tests. So I ended up in Nagano with three priors that I didn’t know about.

Then the IOC tried busting me for it, even when it wasn’t on the list of banned substances. So I had to swallow that pill and I was upset about it. I thought about suing the IOC after that, and I just decided that’s not who I am. I was going to take that blow for the athletes and I was going to be that guy for the cannabis community. That was the hand that was dealt to me, and because it was the cannabis hand, I decided to embrace it, as detrimental as it may have been.

Later that day I was released from the police station, with my gold medal.

Chapter 5: Gold medal returned

Ross Rebagliati shows his gold medal to reporters in Nagano after he was questioned by police about his use of marijuana. (AP Photo/Nikkan Sports)
Ross Rebagliati shows his gold medal to reporters in Nagano after he was questioned by police about his use of marijuana. (AP Photo/Nikkan Sports)

I was in Nagano for two more days before I got back to North America. But one of the things the cops wanted to do to close the case was to go and search my hotel room. So they came up there with a huge entourage of police, army, security and IOC officials. And of course the entire snowboard tour was right there in the hotel, booing and throwing stuff at the cops. I was like the new hero of the tour.

So they searched the room, everything checks out and they leave. I ended up being a little shunned because people didn’t know what to say about it, or didn’t want to associate themselves with me because cannabis was such a hot topic. So I ended up in my room by myself after winning the Olympics and then going through 48 hours of craziness and my phone starts ringing.

I don’t want to answer it because I’m totally in shock, but for some reason I pick up the phone and, amazingly, it’s my buddy from Whistler, who happens to know someone in L.A. who works for the Tonight Show. They’ve contacted him because he lives in Whistler and they were hoping that he knew me, which he did. Somehow he gets through to my hotel room at the right second and he’s like, “Do you want to do the Tonight Show tomorrow? You have to get on the airplane right away. You’ve got first-class tickets from Tokyo to LAX. You have first-class accommodations already lined up for you at the Beverly Hilton. And a Porsche for you there to drive.” And I’m like holy shit, man, this is foreshadowing a lot of craziness that’s to come. I’ve got a new life, and it’s all happening overnight. And I’m going on Jay Leno!

Canadian snowboarder Ross Rebagliati during an interview with host Jay Leno on February 16, 1998. (Photo by: Margaret Norton/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank)
Canadian snowboarder Ross Rebagliati during an interview with host Jay Leno on February 16, 1998. (Photo by: Margaret Norton/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank)

I had a chance to go through Nagano the next day and go to a couple of events. I went to athletes’ village, where I got a standing ovation from all of the athletes. There were a lot of NHL players interested in my story. Eric Lindros talked to me about it. Wayne Gretzky was there and hooked me up with his agent. I had a chance to watch Gretzky play and there’s a famous photo of him in the corner looking to pass and there’s me behind the glass with my Olympic jacket on. The caption was “The Two Great Ones.” I couldn’t believe they would talk about me like that, especially after being in jail and going through what I had gone through. So there was some hope. But with things like that you don’t focus on the good side.

When I did the Jay Leno show, it was a tricky situation. It made me nervous and it gave me anxiety to talk about cannabis openly. It was not something anybody’s really done before, you know? So, I’m hitting a bunch of new neuro pathways here, talking about cannabis with Jay Leno, as an Olympic gold medallist, as an athlete. It was just smashing stereotypes left, right and centre.

Chapter 6: Homecoming

Ross Rebagliati holds his gold medal in the Snowboard Men’s Giant Slalom at the victory ceremony for the Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan, Sunday, Feb. 8, 1998. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)
Ross Rebagliati holds his gold medal in the Snowboard Men’s Giant Slalom at the victory ceremony for the Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan, Sunday, Feb. 8, 1998. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)

There was a huge homecoming back in Whistler. There are amazing pictures with like seven or eight thousand people in the village. They were hanging out of trees, and on the roofs of hotels. It turned into quite the ordeal but it didn’t help me out at all financially or opportunity wise.

I worked construction, but I didn’t have enough money to pay my bills. I couldn’t afford my car insurance. I couldn’t afford to go out for drinks or do anything that would cost money. I literally lived day by day. I remember one time my truck ran out of gas in Whistler and it sat on the side of the highway for two weeks. I just didn’t have any money and the tow truck driver knew it was my truck, and because Whistler is a small place, he felt bad so he just didn’t tow it.

No corporate company wanted to attach their name to me because of the weed. I had a lot of pushback and pretty much had to stop my career because I couldn’t travel into the States to compete.

I ended up getting out of snowboarding completely and worked in the construction industry for about 10 years. But about five years ago I decided I was going to try my luck again and drive to Palm Springs, where my mom lives, with my wife and new baby girl. We had the dog all packed up, drove down from Whistler and got turned away at the border, again. I don’t have a criminal record or anything, so these things started to play on my psyche — 15 years after the Olympics and I’m still dealing with this. That’s when I decided I wasn’t going to play nice anymore and I was going to start up a cannabis super brand, and that’s exactly what I did.

CTV lawsuit: 2008

A copy of a cover of TV Guide promoting the CTV program “Whistler” sits on a boardroom table as Ross Rebagliati reads his statement of claim against the television network and the producers of the show during a press conference in Vancouver on August 2, 2006. Rebagliati is upset that the show misappropriates and defames his character. (CP PHOTO/Richard Lam)
A copy of a cover of TV Guide promoting the CTV program “Whistler” sits on a boardroom table as Ross Rebagliati reads his statement of claim against the television network and the producers of the show during a press conference in Vancouver on August 2, 2006. Rebagliati is upset that the show misappropriates and defames his character. (CP PHOTO/Richard Lam)

I was living in Whistler and the talk of the town was that there was a show being shot called “Whistler.” So I decided to contact the company that was shooting it and let them know I was around if there were any opportunities to get involved. We didn’t hear back from them. And then when the show aired, they had created a character who had an Olympic gold medal in snowboarding and looked a lot like me. He wore the same clothes as me from the Olympics — the red jacket with the white leather sleeves.

The character was in a troubled state and he had a drunk driving accident where somebody died. And I just felt that this was bad for my reputation, and at the time I was already kind of battling the stigma and the stereotypes of being a known cannabis figure. So we decided to file a lawsuit for “misrepresentation of character” and ended up settling.

At the time, I felt like a lot of things had been taken from me and this sort of felt like another instance where my character was being exploited. I’m not the kind of guy that goes around suing people, so this wasn’t something that I wanted to do.

Chapter 7: The cannabis industry

Ross Rebagliati posing with a few cannabis plants, as well as his Olympic gold medal. (Photo: Ross’ Gold)
Ross Rebagliati posing with a few cannabis plants, as well as his Olympic gold medal. (Photo: Ross’ Gold)

So I had an idea that I would start a rolling paper company to start off with, and I was going to call it “Rebagliati’s Gold Rolling Papers.” I had some samples made and there was a picture of me snowboarding on the pack. It gave me anxiety just looking at it because the stigma still existed in my head. The rolling papers thing failed, but then I ended up finding a guy who owned a company that was producing a line of glass — hand pipes and bongs, things like that — that was being distributed to head shops across the country. And so I thought, OK, well maybe I can get this guy to put my name on some paraphernalia. But the shipping container got seized on its way to Canada and made him go bankrupt, so that opportunity sadly disappeared as well.

But then I ran into another guy from California who was integral in creating the state’s medical cannabis program back in 1994. He wanted to make a big move in the cannabis industry and start a company and go public. It was going to be one of the first brands in the industry. That was my first introduction to the public market and what it entails — it all sounded way over my head. I went down that road with him for a couple of months as the president of the company and then one day he just called me and said it’s not going to work out how we thought and cut me free.

Then one day I’m in Whistler, up on the hill having a beer when some old guy comes up to me and says, “You’re Ross Rebagliati, I know who you are. I know what you’re known for and I think there’s a huge opportunity coming up with your name and a cannabis company.” We kept talking and set up a meeting for the next day at his place. He was going to introduce me to somebody who he thought would be able to help me out with the business end of things. That’s when I was introduced to my partner Patrick Smyth, who I’ve been working with for the last five years to create the Ross’ Gold brand.

Ross Rebagliati poses with a mug, which is adorned with the Ross’ Gold logo, that is filled with cannabis. (Photo: Ross’ Gold)
Ross Rebagliati poses with a mug, which is adorned with the Ross’ Gold logo, that is filled with cannabis. (Photo: Ross’ Gold)

Patrick had been involved in a bunch of startups creating web sites during the dot-com era. He could work the back end of the web site and really wear a lot of different hats, which was great because I was on the shoestring working construction and I didn’t have any money. All that I had was a name and I needed somebody who could see my vision and invest their time with no guarantees.

We didn’t have any products, we weren’t selling anything. All that we had was a business plan and a brand ambassador, which was me. And with just my story, we set out on this mission to create the brand based on where we thought the cannabis industry was going in Canada. Keep in mind that five years ago we were in the Harper era, which was very anti-cannabis and creating a licensed producer system that made it impossible for private citizens to participate without access to public money.

So our idea was to go public, raise money and start buying companies, changing them into Ross’ Gold and creating new partners. But during that process our model changed. What we had initially envisioned was that the government-licensed producers, who were not allowed to advertise in any way, would want to license my brand and let us do the advertising. So we signed an agreement with one licensed producer to put their product in our packaging. But we were met with pushback by the LPs because it’s all public money. That went to their heads and all of a sudden they wanted to be the brand, so we got shut down.

(Photo: Ross’ Gold)
(Photo: Ross’ Gold)

So here we are, a public company, and we don’t have the main thing we need: a licensing deal with one of the LPs. Then the Supreme Court started coming down on publicly traded cannabis companies and we ended up being one they investigated.

This was a very touchy time for the cannabis industry in Canada. A lot of court cases started going against the LP model. There was a charter of rights issue. Our stock play basically failed. At one point we were at $4 but we’ve been at $0 for a couple of years now.

In the meantime, we joined forces with another group in Canada that supplies our storefronts in Kelowna. We opened up in December 2016 with no cannabis whatsoever. We had licensed our brand out to a number of companies that produced glass, vaporizer pens, grinders, rolling papers and all kinds of things for us. Everything except the weed itself. By the time we opened the store we had our own line of clothing. We even have a glass case built into the wall where I put my gold medal on display every day.

Ross’ Gols storefront in Kelowna, B.C. (Photo: Ross’ Gold)
Ross’ Gols storefront in Kelowna, B.C. (Photo: Ross’ Gold)

Chapter 8: Running for Office

Ross Rebagliati speaks with the media at the Ross’ Gold storefront in Kelowna, B.C.
Ross Rebagliati speaks with the media at the Ross’ Gold storefront in Kelowna, B.C.

Stephen Harper called for an early election to try and extend his term as prime minister. With my life being so intertwined with cannabis, I wanted there to be a change so I started getting more involved in local politics. I knew there was an opportunity with the Okanagan—Coquihalla riding to run for MP and the local riding association called me up one day out of the blue to invite me to run. I didn’t think people saw me that way because of my association to cannabis, so it was surprising. But what was more surprising was the support I got from within the riding, especially since it was a conservative riding held by Stockwell Day.

I thought there was zero chance I could win, but I didn’t really care. I could be a new voice who could represent a younger generation. Here in Canada we’ve got indigenous issues, child poverty issues, senior care issues, infrastructure issues. All of these were part of my platform, and they weren’t just issues I was raising to win an election. These are real problems. I felt it was time to really tackle this tough stuff, and that includes legalizing drugs.

Other countries have done it with a lot of success. It’s about giving people help when they need it, and that’s how you have to tackle this — by creating an area where people have access to clean drugs so they know what they’re taking and can manage their dosages. We see young kids dropping out of society every single day, but if you can get them in front of someone who cares they would have the chance to ask for help.

But people weren’t ready to talk about cannabis at the time. I lasted about a year while still working construction, but I couldn’t afford to be a candidate forever. So I called the riding association and said, “Thanks for the opportunity, but I’ve got to step down.” I wasn’t just retiring and moving on to the next thing — I was a real person trying to survive, and I had a family with a baby at the time.

Politics was good for me — I was good at it. But I also learned that I didn’t really want to be a politician right away. Maybe there’s something there for me in the future, but I think what I need to do is help get this cannabis industry rolling in Canada. I truly believe that not playing the hand that was dealt to me in Nagano would have been irresponsible in many ways. I feel that I represent the people who use cannabis and have been wrongly accused or affected in a negative way.

Chapter 9: Vindicated

Ross Rebagliati poses with his Ross’ Gold-branded swag at 420 Vancouver in 2016. (Photo: Ross’ Gold)
Ross Rebagliati poses with his Ross’ Gold-branded swag at 420 Vancouver in 2016. (Photo: Ross’ Gold)

I feel redemption. It’s been full circle. It’s come right around. I used one extreme sport, snowboarding, to perpetuate what I consider another extreme sport, which is the cannabis industry.

But there were a lot of years I really had to persevere and dig deep. I swear to God, I ended up with PTSD after all of this. I couldn’t get my mail, I couldn’t go shopping. I literally didn’t file my taxes for 10 years. I got audited at one point and they were like, “Where’s all the money?” And I said, “What money?” They said the newspaper said I made $10 million, and I just said, “That’s where you’re getting your information?” I had to run it all through them and say, “Look guys, I paid to go to the Olympics. I definitely didn’t make any money.”

But I feel like I’ve paid my dues, maybe even overpaid them. I think the cannabis community has overpaid its dues. I think we fought for something that was connected to the integral threads of our society. Having been part of a stereotype that was demonized, I feel like it was my responsibility to shed light on cannabis.

When Michael Phelps got in trouble, I was the guy the media wanted to talk to. “Why in the world would an athlete like Michael Phelps use cannabis,” they would say. And I was like, “Well, it’s calorie free, fat free, no hangover, it’s not addictive.” There are a million reasons.

It took a long time for Canada, for society and for the cannabis industry to get to where it is today. But if you know cannabis, you know that it’s all about being well, feeling well and being the best you can be. Am I going to go to jail? Maybe. But at least I won’t have to worry about paying my bills anymore.

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