Disgraced at Olympics Over Marijuana, Canadian Snowboarder Hopes to Ride to Cannabis Success
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 Mr. 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 Mr. 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, Mr. 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 the sprinter Ben Johnson losing his Olympic gold medal in 1988 in Seoul after testing positive for anabolic steroids, were aghast.
Mr. 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.
For Mr. 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, Mr. 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 nine, with his first wife.
Mr. 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 that Mr. Rebagliati’s attempt to join the so-called “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 Mr. 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 nine 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, Mr. 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. Mr. 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, Mr. 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.
Ross Rebagliati, an athlete once infamous for briefly losing his Olympic gold medal, now hopes to cash in on his fame in the “green gold rush.”