Canada’s Ross Rebagliati rides to victory in the first-ever men’s giant slalom snowboarding competition, Feb. 8, 1998, in Yamanouchi, Japan. (Robert F. Bukaty/AP)
If the name Ross Rebagliati sounds familiar, it may be because two decades ago he became the world’s most famous—and then infamous—snowboarder within the span of 72 hours.
The 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan, represented snowboarding’s entry into the pantheon of Olympic sports. For some, it was still too early. Jake Burton had shaped his first board only 21 years earlier. The sport’s culture remained steeped in punk style and an attitude of youthful rebellion. Norway’s Terje Haakonsen, one of the world’s top riders, famously boycotted Nagano because he believed the commercialism of the Olympics cut against the cultural ethos of snowboarding. That culture included, for many, the embrace of cannabis—which had never found much favor with the uptight ski crowd.
Ross Rebagliati, fighting to keep his medal
Rebagliati, a Canadian favorite in the giant slalom, was highly ranked entering the competition. He was already a veteran of snowboarding’s world tour, but the media attention and pressure in Nagano was something he’d never experienced.
“It was a lot different than the world tour, that is for sure,” he said. “I was having trouble dealing with all the jet lag. I was having trouble sleeping too, along with all the press, and the security around. It was pretty tense.”
Nevertheless, on Feb. 8, 1998, Rebagliati overcame the elements on the mountains outside Nagano. His first run was solid but unspectacular, and it left him in eighth place with a lot of time to make up. After enduring several delays, Rebagliati bolted out of the starting hut and put together the run of his life. With nothing to lose—there are no medals for eighth place—Rebagliati fearlessly carved his way down the mountain slope, as one of the announcers put it: “It is time to carve, or starve.” Rebagliati shredded his way down the mountain. At times it looked like he was struggling to stay on the board as he blitzed through the slalom course.
When he crossed the finish line, he knew he had something great. He gave an intense fist pump at the end of the run before raising his hands in celebration. He had crashed the party, jumping from eighth place to first in a single run.
Seven competitors followed him. One by one, each tried and failed to beat his overall time of 2:03.96. When fellow Canadian teammate Jasey-Jay Anderson clocked in at 2:11.33, nearly eight seconds slower than Rebagliati, the gold medal was his.
For Rebagliati, this was the crowning achievement of his life.
A wave of relief overwhelmed him. After training and competing every day for ten years, Rebagliati finally got the payoff of his dreams. He was an Olympic gold medalist. A hero in his Canadian homeland. Nobody could ever take that away from him.
Or so he thought.
Three Days to Celebrate
The next three days passed in a blur of podium ceremonies, 3am celebrations, scrawled autographs, and congratulatory phone calls. Then, on the afternoon of the third day, one of Rebagliati’s coaches came to his hotel room with unsettling news.
It was the drug test, the coach told him. Rebagliati immediately knew what it was for: THC.
He hadn’t smoked in months. Other than a few parties here and there during the lead-up to the Olympics, where Rebagliati was around friends who were enjoying cannabis, he hadn’t consumed in almost a full year.
Olympic officials wanted to speak to him about it. So did the Nagano police.
That evening, Olympic officials asked him to return his medal. That night, local law enforcement officials questioned him about his cannabis use. They did not let him return to the Olympic village. Less than three days after winning an Olympic gold medal, Ross Rebagliati was arrested, stripped of his possessions and stuck in a Japanese jail cell.
How Did This Happen?
marijuana use Monday, Feb. 16, 1998 during taping of the show in Burbank, Calif. Rebagliati nearly lost the gold medal in snowboarding when a routine drug test showed evidence of marijuana in his system. Rebagliati was allowed to keep the gold medal. (/Susan Sterner/AP)" width="840" height="525" />Rebagliati and Jay Leno gesture to the studio audience as they joke about marijuana use on the Tonight Show, one week after Rebagliati nearly lost the gold medal when a drug test showed evidence of THC in his system. (Susan Sterner/AP)
The next morning, Rebagliati’s situation led all newscasts around the world. Gold medal snowboarder arrested on marijuana charges. For anyone familiar with the skier-vs-snowboarder, snobs-against-the-slobs feud playing out on the mountains of North America and Europe, Rebagliati’s failed drug test and arrest fit neatly into a stereotypical groove. As the sun rose around the world, Ross Rebagliati found himself cast in a role that he spent years trying to escape: That Canadian snowboarder. You know the one. The gold medalist DQ’d for weed.
Rebagliati on the snowboarding world tour
Meanwhile, Rebagliati felt like screaming: I didn’t do it!
”I’ve worked too hard to let this slip through my fingers,” Rebagliati said that morning in a statement read by Canadian Olympic officials.
He was ready to fight. But he couldn’t do it alone. He argued like a queen’s barrister before Canadian Olympic officials, and convinced them to back him rather than banish him. To this day, Rebagliati maintains that he did not consume cannabis on the lead up to the Olympics, rather he was around friends who were consuming, and the positive test was the result of being around second-hand smoke.
The Canadian Olympic Committee appealed the decision. Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien voiced his public support for Rebagliati.
In the end, Olympic officials had to concede that cannabis was not on the official IOC banned substances list. One week after his arrest, IOC officials returned the gold medal to the Canadian champion. But Rebagliati knew the hardware no longer held the promise of a glorious, unlimited future. He was broken. He hadn’t slept in 72 hours. His name was tarnished. His career was over. He left Nagano on the next available flight, wondering what kind of life awaited him back home.
Prelude to a Mighty Fall
An ocean away and twenty years removed from Nagano, Rebagliati today revels in his life in Kelowna, a thriving mountain resort town. He is now a family man, happily married with three small kids. Five ski resorts are within a two-hour drive from his house. Two of the biggest resorts in Canada are an hour away.
On a recent weekday, Rebagliati skied down the freshly powdered slopes of Big White Ski Resort east of Kelowna. Watching Rebagliati carve the run was mesmerizing. He’s 45 now but still in tremendous shape. His snow-boarding years are behind him. Nowadays he sticks to skis when he’s up on the slopes. The old skier-snowboarder feud is dead and buried, and Rebagliati has nothing to prove.
That wasn’t always the case. He began snowboarding in the early 80s as a child in the Vancouver area, during a time when many ski resorts didn’t allow snowboards on the slopes.
After high school, Rebagliati moved to the Whistler area to hone his skills, living on bummed scraps while testing himself against many of the best freeriders in the world. He competed in his first World Series of Snowboarding in 1988, at age 17. He turned pro three years later.
“By the time 92-93 rolled around, I was immersed in the World Cup tour, spending most of my year in Europe competing there,” Rebagliati recalled.
The World Cup was where he started to consume cannabis on a regular basis—and not just for relaxation. He found it helpful in training, too.
“My routine was wake up in the morning, do the routine for the day: train, workout with weights, and then at the end of the day, it was time,” Rebagliati said. “You could find some hash in Europe, and smoke a little bowl to some Frank Zappa and reggae, just loving it.”
That was Rebagliati’s routine for years. Then he joined a new snowboarding world tour–one that that sent their top-ranked athletes to the 1998 Nagano Olympics.
Rebagliati was among the favorites to lead Canada’s first Olympic snowboarding team. He knew there would be drug testing at Nagano, and he would not allow that to get in the way of his lifelong dream.
“I think the Olympic dream is so big that you just don’t care what the rules are. You are like, oh, those are the rules? Okay, I am going to follow the rules,” he said. “I was going to do anything to compete there. I don’t think an athlete would give up that opportunity just to smoke some.”
So Rebagliati gave up consuming cannabis for most of the year leading up to the 1998 Olympics.
“For me, it was no big deal,” he added.
He continued to train like he was, without consuming cannabis, hanging out with his pals from the world snowboard tour and preparing for the biggest race of his life.
With One Test, it All Went Away
Rebagliati standing inside the Ross’ Gold grow facility, RG Private Reserve, in March 2017. (Leafly)
“After the test, my career was over.”
Almost every one of Rebagliati’s sponsors bailed on him after Nagano. He lost 20 pounds. “I was traumatized,” he recalled. “It took me quite a few years to… accept what happened,” he said.
He soon retired from the sport into which he’d poured most of his life. He’d been competing professionally for more than a decade, and physically, he started to not be the same. Also, failing a drug test at the Olympics, resulted in the loss of nearly all his sponsors.
“The attention that was put on me was not about my athletic performance any-more,” he said. “Back in 1998, cannabis was super controversial. I didn’t like being ‘that guy.’ I just won a gold medal, and to be recognized not for that but for cannabis,” was too much to take.
The lucrative X-Games started up the following year, but Rebagliati chose to walk away from the limelight–and damn near all of civilization.
“I went off the grid,” he recalled. For the next 10 years, he had no permanent home. He didn’t pay his taxes, never checked his mail. Rebagliati bounced around Whistler, Vancouver, and Kelowna, flipping houses and working construction.
He struggled financially.
“I was broke enough that I was just eating peanuts. I bought a brand new $80k truck that I didn’t have the money for, and ran out of gas on the side of the road. I had to leave it there. Everyone knew it was mine. It was brand new, special edition, only one in town like it. And it just sat there.”
Friends and neighbors kept asking about the truck. He offered no lies. “Well, I fucking ran out of gas and I didn’t have any money,” he told them.
Repo men eventually came for the truck. Rebagliati confused them by changing the address number on the front of his house.
It started to seem that winning gold wasn’t a blessing. It was more of a curse.
“It was probably a good ten years where my medal stayed in the shit drawer with the screwdriver, ruler, tape measure and all my pencils.”
Along Came Michael Phelps
In early 2009, opportunity finally found Rebagliati once again.
A video of Olympic champion swimmer Michael Phelps hitting a bong at a party hit the internet. If it were you or me, nobody would have cared. But Phelps had created a million-dollar career by pairing Olympic gold medals with a squeaky-clean all-American image.
Rebagliati’s phone began ringing almost immediately. Reporters and producers around the world wanted his comment. “I had a come-to-Jesus moment,” he recalled. “If I am going to stand up for Michael Phelps, then surely I am going to stand up for myself and the industry.”
Rebagliati leapt into the fray. “I went on the major TV networks to defend Phelps. I was the pro-pot athlete.” He decided to come out of the cannabis closet in front of the entire world. “You might have thought I did that at Nagano, but to really come out and say that it is performance-enhancing and healthy, it blows people’s brains out. They don’t want to hear it. But it is the truth.”
The Phelps episode made Rebagliati start to consider getting into the industry. He was already one of Canada’s most famous and outspoken cannabis advocates. Why not?
The problem was money. Creating a company requires a fair bit of it. And he was still swinging a hammer to make rent. The solution came, fittingly, on the slopes of Whistler.
Enter the Silent Partner
A jar of medicinal cannabis on display at the Ross’ Gold dispensary in Kelowna, BC. (Courtesy of Ross’ Gold)
Patrick Smyth is a Canadian venture capitalist who’s comfortable with risk. He made his fortune creating software to serve online gambling companies. Smyth’s past ventures had names like Wiremix, Keno.com, and Gaming Transactions Inc. He’s an avid snowboarder—and he just happened to grow up in the same Vancouver neighborhood as Ross Rebagliati.
“I was up snowboarding and bumped into a friend who was sitting with Ross,” Smyth recalled. “Ross and I hadn’t seen each other since we were kids.”
They got to talking, and Rebagliati, hearing of Smyth’s venture capital background, gave him his elevator pitch.
No, Smyth said. He hadn’t.
Health Canada was in the process of formulating its Marijuana for Medical Purposes Regulations (MMPR), which eventually took effect in 2014. Rebagliati suggested Smyth to consider it. “I’m thinking about opening a [cannabis] business,” Rebagliati told him.
Over the next two weeks, Smyth dug into the whole cannabis thing. He liked what he saw. As an experienced entrepreneur in the online gaming world, Smyth knew opportunity often hid in industries that others were afraid to enter.
Smyth called Rebagliati.
“Hey buddy let’s go snowboarding, eh?”
At the top of the hill they broke for beers. Smyth made his move.
“I think we have something here,” he told Rebagliati. “I want to be your business partner.”
And so, Ross’ Gold was born.
“I felt like it was the right time—during prohibition—to get involved,” Rebagliati recalled. “We wanted to be a cannabis company during prohibition. That was a point that we wanted to make. We wanted to push the envelope. We wanted the attention of not only my fans and the cannabis culture. We wanted to grab the attention of the government.”
From Junk Drawer to Display Case
An inside view of Ross’ Gold in downtown Kelowna. (Courtesy of Ross’ Gold)
Almost five years later, Rebagliati and Smyth have a thriving dispensary in down-town Kelowna and are laying plans to franchise future locations. They manufacture their own grinders and specialty glass.
The government’s attention has been grabbed. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is expected to formally propose a nationwide legalization and regulation measure later this year.
The gold medalist is no longer hiding his past. The Nagano medal has moved from the junk drawer to the display case. Laughing, Rebagliati says, “I have a beautiful brand with my name and picture all over it.”
Nowadays he’s loving life. Rebagliati raises his family in Kelowna because of all the things the city has to offer. There are mountain sports everywhere you turn, and Kelowna is a cannabis hub in booming British Columbia. And Rebagliati is a passionate advocate for the industry.
Rebagliati tending to his plants. (Courtesy of Ross’ Gold)
“There are zero deaths reported due to cannabis,” he said. “That is a pretty loud number. That is probably the loudest zero I have ever heard of.”
He turned reflective. “A lot of people just want to follow the law. They don’t want to go outside that envelope and be a champion for anything.”
“I don’t necessarily want too, but these things have just fallen into my lap,” he said. “I did it with snowboarding. I was snowboarding before it was accepted back in the early 80’s.”
Now he’s doing the same thing with cannabis. Advocating for and investing in a phenomenon that’s still risky, still frowned upon by some, not yet mainstream.
And he loves running the business. Most days Rebagliati will work at the store for a little bit before heading over to the Ross Gold warehouse to check on the company’s grow op.
He closes his day out by swinging by the store and closing up shop. The last thing he does every day is remove his gold medal from the store display and takes it home with him for safe keeping.
“This is what the cannabis industry is going to look like in Canada, America, and the rest of the world. We want to get behind a message of health and wellness, and being the best you can be.”
As the sun began to set Rebagliati jumped back into his truck—all paid for, with a full tank of gas–and rumbled away down the quiet streets of Kelowna.