It's been 15 years since Ross Rebagliati won, lost and re-won the first gold medal in Olympic snowboarding history. For most of those 15 years, Rebagliati tried to distance himself from the bizarre sequence of events—and the 17.8 nanograms of marijuana—that triggered his sudden flirtation with celebrity.
It wasn't until flirtation trickled into perpetuity that the Vancouver native finally decided to embrace the drug that first made him famous.
In other words, he knows what you know about him. He accepts it. He realizes he'll always be the pot-smoking snowboarder dude who nearly lost Olympic gold.
It's an odd legacy, but at least he isn't afraid of it anymore. In fact, he wants to profit from it.
"It's really strange," Rebagliati says of a life that's taken him from a Japanese prison to The Tonight Show to a prominent place in Canada's burgeoning marijuana industry, "and it's because of the weed."
Five Nights in Nagano
One day after Rebagliati won the men's giant slalom at the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, his coach told him he'd tested positive for marijuana. The legal limit for marijuana traces in the bloodstream was 15 nanograms. Rebagliati checked in at 17.8.
Rebagliati claimed, and still claims, that the positive was triggered by second-hand smoke he unwittingly inhaled at a going-away party. He copped to past marijuana usage, but said he stopped smoking 10 months before the Games began.
Two days later, the International Olympic Committee stripped Rebagliati of his gold medal. Roughly 32 hours after that, the IOC gave it back. The rationale for the reversal was as stunning as the initial decision: Weed, as it turned out, wasn't on the IOC's banned substance list.
Rebagliati was sitting inside a holding cell when he first got word of his successful appeal. Japanese authorities had spent over six hours questioning him in relation to the positive test.
It was during the interrogation and subsequent imprisonment that Rebagliati first began to consider the weight of what had just happened. Nerves turned to dread as he realized that the fight over his gold medal was quickly metastasizing into something much larger than snowboarding, or even sport.
Ross Rebagliati, Canadian snowboarder, was smack dab in the middle of a culture war.
"It was intense," Regabliati recalls of the prison. "It was full of cigarette smoke. It was like a scene out of Hawaii Five-0. They were typing on, like, old-fashioned typewriters. They had cigarettes rolled up in their sleeves. And they had the John Wayne hair."
Upon release, Rebagliati became an unlikely Olympic celebrity. He appeared on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. He was the subject of two columns by famed New York Times scribe George Vecsey. The prime minister of Canada called to offer support.
One time at a highway stop in Eastern Canada, a kid asked for Rebagliati's autograph. Before Rebagliati could oblige, the child's dad interceded, called Rebagliati a "drug addict" and hauled the kid away. It would be the first of many public confrontations.
"Little shit like that can get under skin," Rebagliati says.
Regabliati heard the jokes—Leno called him Ross Dimebagliati—and weathered the scorn. He was 26 years old. He figured it would pass.
Becoming the Anti-Stoner
There's a certain naivete in Rebagliati's assumption that his reputation would evolve past the '98 incident.
Did the toe-headed Canadian snowboarder who looks like Steve Zahn and talks in a cadence reminiscent of Jeff Spicoli really think folks would somehow forget the whole weed thing? He was Stoner No. 1 from central casting, for chrissake. No one was going to forget.
Maybe then it was just wishful thinking.
And if it was, it's hard to blame him. No person wants to believe that his life will be defined by a single youthful indiscretion—particularly one as benign as testing positive for second-hand inhalation.
After he got his gold medal back, Rebagliati told the New York Times, "I'm definitely going to change my lifestyle."
He now says comments in that vein were never sincere and were made under pressure. But even if Rebagliati always planned to continue smoking pot, he was at least serious about the change part.
After snowboarding, he dove head first into the corporate world. He worked for a while in real estate. He dabbled in politics. He tried to become, as best he could, the anti-stoner.
"I went pretty much as opposite a direction as you can," Rebagliati recalls.
When the housing market crashed in 2007, Rebagliati's corporate dreams hit a dead end. With his chosen industry smoldering in chaos, Rebagliati turned to the one asset he had left: his fame.
"I’m still getting the cover of the newspaper because of pot, 15 years later," Rebagliati says, "I was at this point in my life where I’m going to go broke...or I’m gonna provide for my family and my two kids and take care of my wife any way I can. For me not to take advantage of the obvious opportunity at that point was irresponsible in my mind. I just sort of bit the bullet."
"Coming out of the Pot Closet"
From that epiphany came Rebagliati's newest business endeavor: Ross' Gold, a java hut, marijuana dispensary and head shop rolled into one.
In late January, shortly after the Canadian government OKed the privatization of prescription-based marijuana distribution, Rebagliati announced plans to open a flagship location in the resort town of Whistler, British Columbia.
Rebagliati anticipates that his country will eventually legalize full recreational marijuana use. And when it does, he believes Ross' Gold, which he plans to franchise, will be in an ideal position.
For those that see his business as shameless celebrity profiteering, Rebagliati wants to make it clear that this decision didn't come easy. "I just found myself backed up against the wall, so I went head first into something I was kind of afraid of doing," he said.
Changing attitudes about marijuana also played a role in Rebagliati's public embrace of the drug.
When Rebagliati won his gold medal, the North American medical marijuana movement was still in its infancy and full decriminalization was little more than a pipe dream. Societal attitudes toward pot were still stuck, at least to some degree, in the paradigm created by Nancy Reagan's war on drugs.
Though there'd been some movement since the mid-1980's, Bill Clinton's famous 1992 remark that he "didn't inhale" when experimenting with marijuana in college reflected a culture still coming to terms with recreational drug use, not quite sure whether to treat pot as taboo or simply alternative.
Rebagliati is a student of geopolitical history, and he's particularly keen on the evolution of marijuana policy. He recognizes that the last decade has seen a tremendous shift in public support for the drug, as evidenced by new legalization measures passed in Colorado and Washington state during the 2012 U.S. election cycle.
It was that change, he says, that allowed him to endorse, and in fact monetize, a public image he's long tried to dodge.
"It was also something that I was relieved about," Rebagliati says. "It was almost like I was coming out of the pot closet."
Rebagliati still smokes. As an athlete, it helped him ease aching muscles, eat healthier and regulate his sleep patterns. These days, it's part of what he considers a healthy lifestyle. He makes no apologies for either.
After more than a decade of derision, diversion and inveterate pandering, Rebagliati has finally surrendered to the controversy that shaped, and still shapes, his life.
"I’m 42," Rebagliati says, "I can’t fix this anymore."
Note: All quotes were obtained first-hand unless otherwise noted.
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