Disgraced At Olympics Over Marijuana, Canadian Snowboarder Hopes To Ride To Cannabis Success

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Ross Rebagliati Photo: Alana Paterson for The New York Times

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.

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