Competing in the Olympics is a dream for almost every talented athlete. Yet the only ones who actually achieve that dream are the ones disciplined enough and willing to push their bodies to the limit and endure years of training and sacrifice.
After over a decade training for the 1998 Olympic Winter Games, all the sacrifice and hard work were worth it for a Canadian snowboarder when he stepped onto the podium to receive the gold medal. Days later, however, it was all taken from him because of something found in his urine test…
In 1998, Ross Rebagliati won the Olympic gold medal for the men’s snowboarding giant slalom. The 1998 Winter Games, which were held in Nagano, Japan, was the first year ever that snowboarding was included as an Olympic sport, and Ross was thrilled to be the first-ever gold medalist in the sport.
An Emotional Win
For Ross, the win made all the training and sacrifices worthwhile. “Words cannot describe the sense of accomplishment when I actually won gold. The fact it’s all over is a relief. I had won, finally won, and it’s all worth it. To have the recognition that my peers respected me as an athlete began to hit home,” Ross said…
10 Years In The Making
Ross had begun competing in 1988 when he was 16 years old. For the next decade, he dedicated his entire life to get to the Olympics. “I was used to competing at senior level, but the Olympics are a different ballgame. An untold amount of preparation goes in,” Ross said.
“I was in the gym 3 hours a day, 6 days a week, lifting weights, cycling to stay in shape. We were on the snow 200 days a year just training,” Ross explained. “It’s an unbelievable amount of time and sacrifice. You have no social life other than the people around the snowboarding scene. After a few months of being on tour, your phone stops ringing…”
A Post-Race Drug Test
After coming in 1st place during finals of the giant slalom run, Ross was required to give a post-race urine sample for drug screening. Competitive snowboarding still wasn’t considered a serious sport at the time, so Ross was excited about the drug screening since it legitimized everything.
Floating On Cloud 9
“It was an honor to do the pee test,” said Ross, who gave officials his urine sample and never thought twice about it afterward. At the time, Ross was still trying to process what he had accomplished. But the celebrations only lasted a few short days…
The Celebrations Come To An End
Ross spent a few days partying with his teammates and friends, but on the morning of February 11, the celebrations came to an end. “A few of us were in my room. A coach came in and told everyone to leave and that I needed to sit down. It was obvious something was up,” Ross said.
A Failed Drug Test
“I figured that it had to be something to do with the drug test given the timing of it all,” Ross explained. His coach sat him down and explained that he had failed his drug test. They had found marijuana in his system and were stripping him of his medal-winning victory…
Ross was devastated but not completely surprised. He had stopped smoking during his training but was around plenty of people who smoked right up until the Olympics. “There was a wake on the lead up to the Olympics for a friend who was buried in an avalanche, and there was a lot of cannabis consumed around at this tragic event, but I hadn’t been smoking it myself at that time.”
A Costly Assumption
Ross thought it was best not smoke weed before the Olympic games even though it wasn’t actually a banned substance. He stopped smoking, but didn’t think he’d have to change his environment or stay away from friends who continued to smoke…
Early on, Ross was upfront with his coaches about his exposure to cannabis leading up to the Olympics. “It was then discussed, ‘Ok, it won’t be the biggest problem in the world’ – I wouldn’t be the only athlete to test positive to cannabis and still retain the medal. There have been cases in the past where it’s all worked out,” Ross said about what his coaching team told him prior to the games.
A Gray Area
As Ross quickly discovered, Cannabis consumption was a gray area for Olympic athletes. The International Ski Federation, which ran the snowboarding World Cup, allowed up to 15 nanograms per millimeter. According to Ross’s post-race urine sample, Ross was over that limit with 17.8 nanograms of marijuana per millimeter in his system. But that shouldn’t have mattered at all…
Not On The List
Technically, marijuana wasn’t actually on the International Olympic Committee’s list of banned substances at the time. There were no rules of any kind that said athletes couldn’t consume the drug. “We had stayed away from it [cannabis] on the world circuit – we just assumed and we didn’t question the IOC. We simply stayed away from all substances,” Ross said.
When Ross was told the committee had voted to strip him of his medal and his win, he couldn’t believe it. “I have worked too hard to let this slip through my fingers,” he said in a statement. The Canadian Olympic Association filed an appeal right away, but Ross was already facing new legal issues…
The Night In Prison
In Japan, marijuana is considered a hard drug, and just possessing it can lead to years in prison. On February 12th, Ross was taken to the Nagano police station, where he was forced to stay the night in a jail cell. By the next day, however, Ross had been released and was told that the Court of Arbitration ruled in his favor.
Ross was once again the gold medal winner of the event. “It must have been embarrassing for the IOC to try to strip me of my medal for testing positive to a substance that wasn’t banned,” he said. “It’s frustrating – my athletic accomplishments were overshadowed by what preceded. I became infamous for the wrong reasons…”
A Hero’s Welcome
Soon after, Ross flew from Japan to Los Angeles to appear on The Tonight Show. When the 26-year-old finally returned home, his fellow Canadians were incredibly supportive. “Canadians were very accepting of cannabis, so I received so much support. I came home to a hero’s welcome,” Ross explained.
“The Prime Minister of Canada called me after I got my medal reinstated. He said that the country supported me and that I had handled myself really well. I had spent a night in a Japanese jail, so as you can imagine, when I was celebrated in such a way, well, that meant a lot to me,” said Ross. But there were also some negative side effects from the scandal…
Too Controversial For Sponsors
Normally companies love to sponsor Olympic gold medal winners, but no one wanted anything to do with Ross. “Marijuana was just too controversial still,” he said. “Combining it with sports was just too much to swallow, corporately.” Ross was also placed on America’s no-fly list even though he was never charged, convicted, or arrested for any crime.
Where He Is Today
Today, Ross is a 46-year-old husband and father. Since the 1998 Olympics, he learned to deal with the fame, wrote a book, was induced to the British Columbia Sports Hall of Fame, and now has a medical marijuana dispensary called Ross’s Gold. “The scientific evidence is there proving benefits and dispelling the propaganda. The economic benefits are too hard to ignore,” said Ross.