CBC Sports Oral Histories: Ross Rebagliati’s golden moment almost goes up in smoke

CBC Sports Oral Histories: Ross Rebagliati’s golden moment almost goes up in smoke


What was happening behind the scenes when the Canadian snowboarder was stripped of his medal at Nagano '98

By Myles Dichter, CBC Sports
December 10, 2020
 

Every Olympic gold medal comes with its highs and lows.

Typically, the wave of emotion crescendos when a winner is declared and a podium is filled.

But Ross Rebagliati isn’t your typical Olympic story.

The 26-year-old from Whistler, B.C., became an instant celebrity after winning the first-ever Olympic snowboard competition at the 1998 Nagano Games, racing to the top of the podium in the giant slalom.

But that celebration, for a time, went up in a puff of smoke.

Canada's snowboarding duo of Ross Rebagliati, left, and Jasey-Jay Anderson, right, look toward the Olympic snowboarding course in Shiga Kogen, Japan while receiving instruction from coach Jerry Masterpool.(Photo by Reuters) Canada's snowboarding duo of Ross Rebagliati, left, and Jasey-Jay Anderson, right, look toward the Olympic snowboarding course in Shiga Kogen, Japan while receiving instruction from coach Jerry Masterpool.(Photo by Reuters)
 

Ross Rebagliati: I was a ski racer until I was 15, when I started snowboarding. And I pretty much immediately started doing contests. … I didn't even give it a second thought. I'm like, ‘Oh, there's snowboarding competitions. Sounds awesome.’

Mark Rebagliati (Ross’ father): As a little kid, he said he was going to ski race at the [1988] Calgary Olympics.

Ross Rebagliati: [The Olympics were] definitely a dream that I used to have, but then went away and came back again. So it was quite amazing to jump on this snowboard train and bring it out of prohibition, I guess you could say, and then see it all the way to the Olympics, [in] 10 years of competition.

In 1994, snowboarding was officially added to the programme for the 1998 Nagano Games.

Ian Hanomansing (CBC News reporter): These were the Wayne Gretzky Olympics, the first time NHL players had ever played in the Olympics. And that was the big story. … Basically, it was the Winter Olympics version of the U.S. basketball Dream Team. From a national news perspective, snowboarding was just one of the [other] stories.

Ross Rebagliati: We got to Nagano one day, the next day we trained, and then the next day we raced right away. We're the first event of the Nagano Olympics.

Ian Hanomansing: We're trying to look at various stories and storylines. And so snowboarding was an obvious one because it was the first time it was in the Olympics. And also there was a Canadian medal hopeful. I think it was Mark Fawcett.

 
 

The snowboard giant slalom event occurred in two parts - the top 16 riders after the first run advanced to the second run.

Mark Fawcett (Canadian snowboarder, ’98 and ’02 Olympics): [During the first run] I bounced once, and then a second little bounce, and then I was going to grab it and really move with it, and that's when I felt the holy ghost. Instantly in my head I was like, ‘Not now, not now, not now. Oh, my God.’ And then I went into the fence lightly... I cannot believe this just happened now.

Mark Rebagliati: [Fawcett] had the fastest halfway time of any racer on the first run, but he was out of the race.

Ian Hanomansing: We thought, ‘OK, well, I guess we won't be filing a story on the snowboarding.’

Ross Rebagliati: After the first run I was eighth, so it was an OK run. There were some mistakes that I recovered from and still left me with enough time that I knew it wasn't impossible, but it was pushing the realm of possibility.

Mark Rebagliati: He was almost a half second out, which sounds like not much, but it's actually huge on the first run. And when he came down I chatted with him for a while, and then he went off for lunch.

Rebagliati gestures to the crowd after competing on Feb, 8, 1998. (Photo by Getty Images) Rebagliati gestures to the crowd after competing on Feb, 8, 1998. (Photo by Getty Images)
 

Ross Rebagliati: All the other athletes went to the restaurant at the bottom of the mountain where it was crowded and [there was] a lot of tension and coaches with radios. So I went to the hotel to be by myself and to eat lunch, but it was closed and I missed it by like 10 minutes or something. And they're on time in Japan. And I remember getting upset at the guys in the kitchen.

I said, ‘I can see the spaghetti right there. You have to give it to me.’ And I was about ready to go into the kitchen and get it myself. And then they're like, ‘OK, OK, we'll give you the spaghetti.’ That was like the only hitch of the day. I did get my spaghetti and went to tune my board on the hallway of the hotel on the floor.

Weather conditions began to deteriorate between the first and second runs of the event, which Rebagliati believed was to his benefit.

Ross Rebagliati: I was actually in the start gate for quite some time during one of the delays. But for me, I always did good in that condition because where I grew up in Vancouver and Whistler, we rode in that all the time. It was like that every time we went.

And I know the Europeans were a little bit soft when it comes to bad weather. And so I kind of boosted my confidence a little bit more.

Darren Chalmers (Canadian snowboarder, ‘98 Olympics): Ross is the kind of guy, if we'd be in northern Italy and that Mediterranean climate in the worst fog you've ever seen in your life, and he'd be going along an Autobahn at 180 km/h only being able to be see 15 feet in front of you. He lived for the fog.

Ross Rebagliati: I risked everything in the second round. I was like, ‘I'm already so far out and the weather is so s--tty, I have to go for it.’ I remember my coach ringing me up on the radio before my second run. And he said, ‘What do you want to know about the course?’ And I said something like, ‘When are the award ceremonies?

I was like, ‘I don't need to know any information about the course…[it’s] do or die. I have 10 years of snowboarding under my belt or I don't.’

Rebagliati won the first Olympic gold in snowboarding by a mere two-hundredths of a second. (Photo by Getty Images) Rebagliati won the first Olympic gold in snowboarding by a mere two-hundredths of a second. (Photo by Getty Images)
 

Mark Fawcett: I sat there and watched [as] Ross came down. Great run. Then just one person after another came down, not knocking him [out of first place] and with two guys left to go, I went up to him in the finish area, I said, ‘Dude, are you in third?’ He said, ‘No, I'm in first.’

Mark Rebagliati: [American] Chris Klug and Jasey-Jay Anderson...were the last two. Ross saw how Chris was skiing and he says, ‘You know, he's out of it.’ I said, ‘How could you know that if he's got like another 30 gates or whatever it was?’ He says, ‘I could just tell.’ OK, then he finished. Then Jasey-Jay came down and through the fourth gate, [Ross] said, ‘You know, he's holding the gold medal in his hand. And he's not going to make it.’

So, Ross won by two-hundredths of a second. The two runs would have added up to about roughly two kilometres. And he won by about two feet.

Ian Hanomansing: I started doing stories about Ross RE-BAG-LIATI. And then overnight, somebody sent me an email saying, I don't think you're pronouncing his name right [Correct pronunciation: REB-LIATI]. But that's how little we knew about him.

 

Ross Rebagliati: We did our drug tests just down in the finish line. We just peed into a cup, basically.

I got my gold medal and we went back to the hotel and partied and did karaoke. And of course, we're drinking and the whole party scene. Some people got a little too partied out and got in trouble, and yeah, it was a pretty crazy night.

The next morning we were still sort of celebrating and people were coming by to see the gold medal because none of us had ever seen a gold medal before from the Olympics. [Then] the coaches came in and said for everyone to leave except for me.

‘You failed, you tested positive for something,’ they said, and I was like, ‘Oh, no, really?’

Ian Hanomansing: All of a sudden we start hearing rumblings that there is a Canadian who has “tested positive.” I mean, those are the words that just sent shockwaves through Canadian journalists and sports people, because obviously the long shadow cast by Ben Johnson in 1988.

From left to right, Italy's Thomas Prugger, Canada's Rebagliati, and Ueli Kestenholz of the Czech Republic celebrate on the podium. (Photo by Getty Images) From left to right, Italy's Thomas Prugger, Canada's Rebagliati, and Ueli Kestenholz of the Czech Republic celebrate on the podium. (Photo by Getty Images)
 

Mark Rebagliati: I'm sicker than a dog [in] a hotel room at the Narita Airport Hotel. I woke up in the middle of the night, the TV was still going, and that's when I heard that the proverbial hit the fan over Ross's urine test.

Mark Fawcett: Two of the Austrians come up to me and they said, ‘What the f--k, Mark?’ And I said, ‘What? What are you talking about?’ He's like, ‘Ross tested positive.’ I'm like, ‘What are you talking about? I have no idea what you're talking about. No details.’

He's like, ‘He tested positive for something and [they’re] taking him away and taking his medal away. We're getting raked over [the coals].’

They were genuinely, really pissed, like some sort of scandal ruining our limelight of a really good first day.

Canadian snowboard team leader Mike Wood, right, looks on as Canadian Olympic team CEO Carol Anne Letheren addresses journalists during a press conference after Rebagliati was stripped of his snowboard gold title for failing a drug test. (Photo by Getty Images) Canadian snowboard team leader Mike Wood, right, looks on as Canadian Olympic team CEO Carol Anne Letheren addresses journalists during a press conference after Rebagliati was stripped of his snowboard gold title for failing a drug test. (Photo by Getty Images)
 

Ross Rebagliati: I was in shock, and it was also my worst nightmare because I had this reoccurring dream for four months that I forgot I was under drug testing and that I was smoking a joint. All of a sudden I'm halfway through a joint going, ‘Oh, my God, I f--ked it up.’ You know, that was my dream. I kept having it over and over in different instances. And I’d wake up all stressed out with anxiety and realize that I didn't actually smoke any weed and that I was cool.

Weed was on the list of banned substances on the World Cup tour. And we assumed that it was on the list of banned substances also for the Olympics. It was just classic that this nightmare came true. I basically told them right there, I said the only thing that I think it could be is weed.

Indeed, the positive test came from the fact that Rebagliati had 17.8 nanograms per millilitre measured in his urine test.

Ian Hanomansing: We were blindsided by the positive test and that it was him and that it was cannabis. And it’s just this whirlwind.

Darren Chalmers: He had to go down right away to Canada House and talk to our chef de mission. We were in the medical briefing leaving out of Calgary, [and] we asked the doctors what was illegal and what was not. We thought everybody would be in the clear, there would be no issue. That's why our manager brought up that he should just call it second-hand smoke. Just say someone was smoking and that was that.

Ross Rebagliati: I knew exactly where it came from. It came from hundreds upon hundreds of times going over to my buddy's house and not smoking weed. I had done the drug tests and nothing was being brought to my attention with regards to anything.

And so I felt like I was OK to still visit my friends and pass the joint to the next guy and not have the puff, and I got a lot of questions like, ‘Isn't it hard not to smoke weed?’ Amazingly, it's not hard.

Rebagliati kisses his gold medal after the medal ceremony on Feb. 8, 1998. (Photo by Getty Images) Rebagliati kisses his gold medal after the medal ceremony on Feb. 8, 1998. (Photo by Getty Images)

Mark Fawcett: Canada Snowboard was a brand new organization at that point. So luckily, the COC sort of helped us with what we're going to have to deal with. I wouldn't say media training, but it was on-the-fly management.

Ian Hanomansing: We had 10 years of Canadian experience in performance-enhancing drugs and why they should have no place at the Olympics. We know that to be a Canadian journalist in 1998 was to have had quite a bit of knowledge about performance-enhancing drugs, to have somebody disqualified because of cannabis, we definitely joked about it. But in that sort of gallows humour.

Ross Rebagliati: Where am I going to hide the medal? That's what I was thinking. I was looking in the panels of the ceiling of the hotel room, I was going to say someone already took it from me, or I don't know where it is right now, that I was scrambled. I had thought of skipping out to Costa Rica and just disappearing to Central America because Ben Johnson was the last guy that had really gotten in big trouble at the Olympics.

I was just really terrified about what the fallout from it would all be and how it was going to be received by Canadians.

Ian Hanomansing: I don't remember people feeling like, ‘Oh, my goodness, like how ashamed are we? And here's another athlete who's trying to cheat the system.’ I don't think we ever perceived it as cheating. I think we perceived it more as really what this is. This is really something that's going to lead to him losing the gold medal and just kind of trying to understand that.

Rebagliati arrives at a police station outside the city of Nagano for questioning by Japanese authorities about his positive test for marijuana. (Photo by Reuters) Rebagliati arrives at a police station outside the city of Nagano for questioning by Japanese authorities about his positive test for marijuana. (Photo by Reuters)
 

Mark Rebagliati: It was after lunch when I got a call from Ross. I knew it was Ross, but he didn't sound like Ross. He was very guarded in what he said, very careful. And I said, ‘Do you have privacy?’ He said no. So I said, ‘OK, well, you know, first of all, life goes on, it's just one more race and you won it like whatever the results.’

But I didn't know he was in the Japanese police station in the washroom and there’s a Canadian Olympic official with him.

Ross Rebagliati: I ended up in the police station in a cell being interrogated through an interpreter and being processed and charged with importing a controlled substance in Japan. And that's [where I was] when the decision was made to reinstate me and to get my medal back.

Darren Chalmers: It wasn't something that was supposed to be illegal. The only reason it was actually brought up was because in Japan [if] you have any THC in your blood system at all, you're guilty of possession. The Japanese testers brought it to the police, not even the IOC.

He was interrogated by the Japanese police for eight hours solid, which was absolutely ridiculous. They had the consulate limo outside with a diplomatic passport sitting there.

Ross Rebagliati: I had so much anxiety and I already hadn't really eaten much or slept that well leading up to the Games, not to mention 17 hours of jet lag because we had just arrived. Now I'm stressed out and couldn't eat anymore or sleep for the next little while. And I was losing at least three to five pounds a day for the next three days after that.

 
 

Following an appeal from the Canadian Olympic Association, Rebagliati was reinstated by the IOC and restored his status as gold medallist.

Ross Rebagliati: They had lawyers that found that cannabis wasn't on the list of banned substances and I actually didn't break any rules. I would 99 per cent be the first athlete to ever be reinstated after losing a gold medal.

Mark Rebagliati: There was a list of banned substances put out and the athletes to compete had to be able to sign off that they had read it and would conform to those regulations. And cannabis wasn't on the list. It wasn't a banned substance, it was a restricted substance like caffeine. Like, you can have four cups of coffee, but you can’t have eight.

Ian Hanomansing: That final news conference when Ross was finally cleared and he came in, he was so composed and he basically said he wasn't going to apologize and he wasn't going to throw anybody under the bus.

Darren Chalmers: He handled it unbelievably well for a guy who had that much pressure put on him after an event, being at the super high of the big win and then the shock of someone trying to take your medal away for something it shouldn't be taken away for.

Mark Rebagliati: They're asking all kinds of questions and Ross is answering them and I said, ‘Boy, he must have got some really good coaching behind the scenes before they brought him out.’ I asked him about it. He said, no... all on his own.

After his gold medal was reinstated, Rebagliati was invited to be a guest on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. (Photo by The Associated Press) After his gold medal was reinstated, Rebagliati was invited to be a guest on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. (Photo by The Associated Press)
 

Ross Rebagliati: I go back to my hotel room and I'm all by myself and my phone started ringing. It's my buddy from Whistler and The Tonight Show with Jay Leno wants me to catch an airplane to Tokyo the next day.

To win the first-ever Olympics for snowboarding and to go from the journey that I had -- to have the dream, and then not to have the dream, and then to have it back again, and then see it fulfilled -- it’s [wild], brother.

 

Ian Hanomansing: What do you do for an encore? How do you match that? Basically, you're an ordinary guy to whom an extraordinary thing happens when you're a young man. And how do you ever measure the rest of your life compared to that moment?

Darren Chalmers: I think it affected him poorly over time. All the talk about this with the marijuana, it affected him as a private guy.

Mark Fawcett: The next time I saw him in Whistler, he had lost 15 pounds of muscle.

Ian Hanomansing: Very, very few people, very few humans on the planet will ever have that kind of ride that he did. And I guess he'll have to decide how the rest of his life measures up to that.

Ross Rebagliati: At the end of the day, I'm glad everything went down the way it did. And I even knew at the time that there was an opportunity for me to turn it around, because I knew snowboarding would catch on, I knew cannabis was good for me and that there wasn't a really legit reason for it to be in prohibition.

 
 

Nagano wound up being the only Olympics in which he’d ever compete. Now, Rebagliati runs a chain of marijuana dispensaries in B.C. Its name? Ross’ Gold.

Ross Rebagliati: I ended up deciding that instead of hiding from it, that I was going to confront [it] and make sure that I use the platform that was given to me. Play that hand that was dealt to me in support of cannabis and why people use cannabis, why athletes choose cannabis and how it can be part of a healthy lifestyle.

 

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Large images courtesy Getty Images and Reuters.

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