At the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan, it took Ross Rebagliati two minutes to win a gold medal. His cumulative time, for two runs down the giant slalom course on Mount Sakebitai, the second of which took place in a heavy fog with ice-chunked snow pelting the mountain, was 2:03.96. His margin of victory: two one-hundredths of a second.
There’s video of Rebagliati's final run on YouTube. In grainy footage you can watch him barrel forward, his body bending and tilting and falling just inches above the snow as he leans in for speed and carves a precise line between the flagsticks. His jersey is white and blue, but in the fog, against the backdrop of the mountain, everything is a dull haze. It looks like Rebagliati is falling through a cloud.
It was snowboarding’s first appearance at the Olympics. Rebagliati, who hadn't had a top three finish on the pro tour that season, was the first snowboarder to win gold. Instantly, he became the face of the sport. Then, almost as quickly, he became known for something else.
Rebagliati had failed his drug test. Trace amounts of marijuana were in his system. He explained that he had stopped smoking almost a year earlier, as part of his training. In the lead up to the Olympics, though, Rebagliati had attended a wake for a friend that had been caught in an avalanche. Cannabis was consumed by others, he said, and Rebagliati attributed his positive test to secondhand smoke. It wasn't enough to sway the Olympic Committee. Rebagliati’s medal was revoked and, the next morning, he was taken in for questioning at a Japanese police station.
Under Japan’s Cannabis Control Act, possession of a small amount of marijuana, a single joint, for example, can result in a five-year prison sentence. While Rebagliati was inside the station and under interrogation, another discovery had been made on the outside. There was no agreement between the International Olympic Committee and the International Ski Federation regarding marijuana use. The Olympic Court for Arbitration of Sport voted unanimously to reinstate Rebagliati’s medal. Canada’s prime minister called to offer congratulations.
The ordeal was over, for the moment, but other lasting damage had been done. Rebagliati, then 26 years old, had provoked an international scandal. His story made headlines globally and was shouted about—the way these things are always shouted about—in the court of public opinion. In the moment, marijuana came to define him. Now, almost two decades later, it still does.
It’s just after 10 a.m. when I reach Rebagliati at his home in Kelowna, British Columbia. It’s Thursday, and word has gotten back to Rebagliati, from some skiing buddies, that the snow in the alpine is neck-deep. Years ago, he’d already be up the mountain. Not today.
“Today I’m in the garden,” he says, referring to a local medical marijuana facility. Rebagliati works there, under the tutelage of one of Kelowna’s master growers. Rebagliati launched a business venture called Ross’ Gold in January 2013, planning to create a line of medical marijuana dispensaries, with storefronts and cafes; the focus has now shifted to an online store, which will sell different strains of cannabis curated and cared for by Rebagliati himself. While the company waits for its license from the Canadian government, Ross’ Gold is selling a line of glassware, including a 24-karat gold bong that retails for $24,420. Each piece also comes with a miniature gold medal and red Canadian toque stuck on top, similar to the hat Rebagliati wore during the Olympics.
The floppy red cap became part of his image, and Roots, the Canadian clothing company that designed it, signed Rebagliati to an endorsement deal. In the months following the Olympics they flew him around the world, to private ski vacations and celebrity parties. At peak Ross-mania, he visited the Toronto Eaton Centre, one of Canada’s largest malls. He estimates about 8,000 fans were there to see him.
“They packed the whole place,” he says. “People were up the escalators and in the stairwells. Everyone was screaming. I had a table where I was signing things and there were girls passing out and stuff.”
For a while, it was fun. Rebagliati traveled, partied with celebrities, smoked a joint backstage with Keith Richards at a Rolling Stones concert in Denver, and lived comfortably off his fame. The marijuana test had added infamy to his celebrity and magnified the entire process.
The aftermath, though, the interrogation, the questioning, the glaring parents that ripped their children away as they rushed toward Rebagliati for autographs—that stayed with him. “For it to carry on the way it did, it was just an athlete's worst nightmare, really,” he says. “That’s what you wake up in a cold sweat about, worrying about stuff like that.”
The day after an appearance on the Jay Leno Show, Rebagliati returned to Whistler. Close to 10,000 people greeted him, more than the village’s population. Paparazzi had chased him from the airport. That night, for the first time in months, he retreated into his 600-square-foot apartment. He was back home, an international star, and completely paranoid. “I thought the walls were listening to me,” he says. “I just didn't feel like I was by myself even though I was. It was just really crazy.”
Rebagliati dropped off the world cup tour that year, and skipped it again the next. At 28, he was still a capable athlete, but he had burned through his energy for the sport. He went from traveling the world to staying at home.
When he did travel, he had a difficult time crossing the American border. Since the September 11, 2001, attacks he hasn’t been able to enter the United States. Over the phone he mentions that tomorrow his stepdad is being buried in California. A military funeral, Rebagliati says—“firing the guns, playing the bugle, the whole thing.” He won’t be there. “This is one of the things I’ve had to come to terms with in the last 15 years,” he says.
Rebagliati faced another challenge once his wave of celebrity began to recede. His work experience was limited to flipping houses, he had no university degree, and an international reputation for smoking marijuana. “I was naive. I thought: ‘I’m going to be a millionaire; everything's a cakewalk now. Everywhere I go there’s a red carpet, private jets, thousands of people lined up.’ It fucks with your head. The one thing that was the savior was I didn't really make any money. That sort of kept it real for me.”
He took a job with a construction crew, as a laborer, and started cleaning up work sites. “One of the hardest days of my life was the first day on the job,” Rebagliati says, but he stayed. He worked construction for 10 years. Pouring concrete, framing houses, re-building his life. He began to embrace his past, and speak publicly about medical marijuana. For a short spell, he entered politics.
When Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt admitted to casual marijuana use, Rebagliati was in front of the cameras again, defending their choices. “It’s tough,” he says of seeing other athletes get suspended or fined for cannabis infractions. “Because you know they are healing themselves. They are medicating themselves, and probably it’s a good alternative to something worse, like alcohol, opiates, or painkillers.”
Policies, laws, and attitudes toward marijuana are changing, and Rebagliati is embracing the shift. “I finally get a chance to play the card I was dealt at the Olympics,” he says.
“I’ve been a part of this system,” he says. “I’ve been a part of prohibition. It’s part of my story.”
Rebagliati is 44 now. He has three kids, a start-up business, and a plan for the future. There were times, after the Olympics, when he couldn't afford dog food. Over the last couple of years, his life, he says, has become “more real.”
“I don't feel like I'm breaking the law everywhere I go anymore. It would have been easy for me, in the last 18 years, to have a fuck-up in a bar somewhere, or to get messed up on drugs, to get into the media and screw up,” he says. “I was kind of forced out of the limelight, which is a good thing, and forced to think about life in a different way.”
At the medical marijuana facility, when he’s not in the garden, he’s building things, framing walls, using the construction skills he learned. “Growing cannabis is actually a lot of work,” Rebagliati says. “It isn't just a passion of mine, or a lifestyle, it’s my whole world right now. I’m finally able to leverage my experiences—the Olympics, my gold medal—for something positive, something that helps me support my family. It’s pretty much a dream come true, and one I’ve been waiting for for a long time.”
The Sports Lens is a running series exploring the intersection of sports and culture.