Olympic star Ross Rebagliati was 21 when he won an Olympic medal, just to get it taken away (and later given back again) for marijuana use. Rebagliati sat down with High Times Canadian correspondent and cultivation contributor Erik Biksa to discuss his experience, the current state of weed in professional athletics and what it means for athletes and the bodies that govern sport.
Rebagliati became a household name from the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan when he won gold at the first-ever Olympic Men’s Snowboarding event. He is not only famous for the win but also for having it stripped away for testing positive for THC and then ultimately returned to him.
In some circles, it can be said that he won gold twice, as this is the one-and-only time in the history of the Olympics to date where a medal was returned to an athlete after being taken away. In fact, the gold medal was returned to him as he sat behind bars in Japan—only for having tested positive for a very small amount of THC in his body.
Back in 1998, when Rebagliati won Gold and then tested positive, THC was not on WADA’s (World Anti Doping Agency) or the IOC’s (International Olympic Committee) list of banned substances—they quickly changed that following the incident. The negative impact of this decision still affects athletes all over the world to this day.
Given Sha’Carri Richardson’s recent spotlight in the media—not for her blazing track times, but because of her blazing for personal reasons, there has never been a more poignant time to discuss the ramifications and impact of casual toking for professional athletics, and Rebagliati does just that.
The consequences of cannabis use are serious and seemingly unjustified. The situation seems to be one of those instances where it takes a lifetime to build something and just a few seconds to have it all taken away. And what for? The vast majority of North Americans, or even citizens of the world at large, do not consider cannabis consumption a crime. Calling it a “performance enhancing drug” is flimsy, at best.
Rebagliati on Blazing and Going for Gold
Ross Rebagliati was kind enough to find time in his busy schedule between Ross-Gold, his cannabis-related company, and busy personal and family life to share some first-hand insights on cannabis in professional athletics from both the perspective of an Olympic Gold Medalist and a dedicated cannabis advocate.
For people who might not fully understand what a person puts into becoming a top-level athlete can you tell us a little bit about what’s involved?
RR: A huge amount of untold hours and sacrifice is just part of what goes into training and competing at top level. In my case, it began when I was 10 years old as a ski racer, before graduating to snowboarding.
There are 365 days in a year. I spent 200 days a year competing and training during the snow season and another 50 days on top of that training in the off season. Every waking moment of an athlete’s life goes into their sport.
As a teenager, I spent much time isolated, away from family and friends in other countries. When starting out, athletes don’t have sponsors—they have to find ways to make ends meet including paying for hotels, rentals, travel, etc. on top of a serious athletic regimen.
Then, once you rise through the ranks and gain some comfort via sponsors, you lose it all once achieving a place on the Olympic team. It’s a level of focus and sacrifice that a lot of people simply couldn’t understand—it takes digging deeper than you ever thought possible.
After all the sacrifice, blood, sweat and tears, tell us about some of the good tuff that comes along with making the Olympic podium.
It’s kind of like getting a university degree. The win gives you credentials, but it’s up to you as a person to make something of it. Because of the win and the circumstances surrounding it, I gained a lot of notoriety, virtually overnight. For example, I appeared with Jay Leno on The Tonight Show, had Will Ferrell play me on SNL and had guest spots on the [Late Night with Conan O’Brien] a few times.
In my case, I got to meet a lot of famous people, at the height of prohibition, who were open with me about their cannabis use. You can say that I have burned more than one with some very famous people in my life as a result. In 2013, I started Ross-Gold, a cannabis related company. In fact, we started selling top shelf glassware at the time Tommy Chong was released from prison after taking the rap for bong sales in the USA.
While the majority of North Americans and even the world at large view cannabis as relatively safe or even beneficial, why do you suppose WADA and the IOC keep cannabis on their list of prohibited substances and have even stated that it “violates the spirit of sport”?
Because the United States maintains cannabis as a Schedule I drug. The IOC is a collective agreement between 35 countries; a lot of these countries are very slow to change, partly out of tradition and in some instances, it’s about “face” or not wanting to reverse their official line on how “dangerous” of a “drug” they have made cannabis out to be over the last 60 or so years.
People have been locked up, had their children taken away, possessions auctioned—the prohibitionists are well-entrenched via corporate interests and still carry a pretty big stick. This is something they can’t spin around on overnight, even given the clear, scientific facts now becoming available to people that cannabis isn’t dangerous.
Rebagliati on the Future of Cannabis
Do you think that WADA, the IOC and big corporate sponsorship are likely to change their position anytime soon, given popular public opinion and facts with regards to cannabis and prohibition?
Unfortunately for athletes all over the world like Sha’Carri, things aren’t likely to change so long as the United States maintains cannabis as a Schedule I drug. Changes made by the United Nations for scheduling cannabis are a step in the right direction—and look to Canada as an example of unceremoniously ending cannabis prohibition and taking a realistic approach to how we view and regulate cannabis consumption in a free society.
Bad rules are designed to be broken. A lot of the reason prohibition exists are based on racial discrimination and corporate intrests. It’s a well-documented history. However, there is much optimism for the long-term future and the positive steps towards lasting change that continue to grow.
Based on your own experiences with the cost that cannabis prohibition can have on an athletic career, any advice to other athletes out there like Sha’Carri who are feeling the sting?
It’s a tough spot to be in. I felt humiliated, embarrassed and mad. To have put so much into something and to have it taken away for what most people can see are purely political reasons backed by corporate interests is devastating. My best advice is to block the noise, and double down on your own character. As a human being, you intrinsically understand what’s “right” and “wrong.” There is nothing wrong with enjoying or benefiting from a plant—all that nonsense is manmade and false.
Ross, I can say with a high level of confidence as a Canadian that our nation was behind you 100 percent—back in 1998 and even to this day. North America, particularly Canada has one of the highest rates of cannabis consumption per capita in the world.
We also enjoy one of the highest standards of living and are considered among the top safest places to live—cannabis is a part of many people’s lifestyles, whether athletes, teachers, doctors or students and will continue to be. Seems time for the bodies that govern sport to take a realistic approach as not to alienate the fan base that supports them, the athletes and their sport.