Dazed And Confused

  • If you want Vivaldi or Wagner or Lloyd Webber, go figure skating. Snowboarding's sound tracks are different. Last week at the Olympic snowboard park, as riders launched into the air like skateboarders in the 120-m halfpipe course, Pearl Jam and Metallica ruled. Several riders chose as their personal song the rap group Cypress Hill's Hits from the Bong. That was appropriate. The International Olympic Committee had been hoping to create a buzz and draw in a generation of sports fans used to pierced noses when it added snowboarding as a full-medal sport to the Nagano Games. And buzz it did.

    Three days after Canadian Ross Rebagliati took snowboarding's first-ever gold medal in the giant slalom, the I.O.C. asked him to give it back. The 26-year-old from British Columbia had tested positive for marijuana (a urine level of 17.8 nanograms per milliliter, exceeding the 15.0 limit set by snowboarding's Olympic governing body, the International Ski Federation), and after a 3-to-2 vote, the I.O.C.'s executive board recommended he be stripped of his prize. Rebagliati admitted to having smoked in the past, but he asserted that he had not sparked up since April 1997, claiming to have ingested the offending substance as secondhand smoke at a farewell party thrown by several friends in his home ski resort of Whistler, B.C., on Jan. 31. Though journalists saw this as a Clintonesque and laughable defense, the Canadian Olympic Association filed an appeal on Rebagliati's behalf. And the word among snowboarding's tight brotherhood in Nagano was that no one was going to accept any prizes they didn't earn if the giant-slalom medals were redistributed.

    Then came the next twist. A day later, the Court of Arbitration for Sport ruled that because there was no formal agreement between the I.O.C. and the I.S.F. to ban marijuana outright, the I.O.C. could not legally strip Rebagliati of his medal. I.O.C. medical guidelines, which ban everything from cocaine to some cold remedies, qualify marijuana as "restricted" and a substance to be used "cautiously," while I.S.F. rules name pot as a prohibited drug. Said the panel: "We cannot invent prohibitions or sanctions where none appear."

    Meanwhile, the Canadian Olympic team came up with medical evidence to back Rebagliati's claims. Carol Anne Letheren, chief of the Canadian Olympic Association, said that a single joint would bring an athlete's level to 400 ng/mL but that just being in a room with eight to 10 smokers an hour a day for six days could result in levels over 100. Ronald Alkana, professor of molecular pharmacology and toxicology at the University of Southern California's School of Pharmacy, said that marijuana's primary active ingredient, THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), can be stored in the body's fat cells for relatively long periods and that "it's reasonable to assume that secondhand smoke could be absorbed." After the final ruling, Rebagliati remained cool, redisplaying the medal he had kept in his pocket during the three-day fracas. He said he would join in some antidrug campaigns but refused to condemn drugs outright. "I am definitely going to change my life-style. But I will not change my friends," he said. "I will stick by them." He added, "I may have to wear a gas mask from now on."

    And that's just one point of contention between the worlds of the Olympics and snowboarding. Within some of the sport's core circles, pot has been a common part of the life-style. Along with freedom, travel and the pursuit of that perfect powder day, marijuana is regarded by certain riders as traditional ritual. Scott McKinley, a snowboard rider and assistant manager of a Whistler snowboard shop, says of the culture, "I don't want to give the impression that everybody up here is a stoner. I compare it to cracking open a beer at a friend's [house]: it's so common, nobody thinks about it." In fact, many had joked that with snowboarding's induction into the Nagano Olympics, some riders would inevitably get busted for their hemp affections. In any case, most of Rebagliati's fellow Olympic snowboarders have come to his defense. "He still won the gold medal," says women's halfpipe finalist American Cara Beth Burnside. "Everyone's just furious about it. It's not affecting his performance. C'mon, they're kicking people out for cough medicine." "It's too bad," says American pro snowboarder Adam Merriman. "Pot doesn't make your muscles swell up--otherwise he'd have a reason to lose his gold. But marijuana just mellows you out. I don't understand why they busted him." Says Swiss halfpipe rider Anita Schwaller: "It's so ridiculous. It's not the riders who wanted to be in the Olympics; they wanted us." (Snowboarding is still banned in many elite ski resorts, including, during regular season, the course in Nagano.)

    Even before the opening ceremonies commenced, many snowboarders feared the Games would alter their subculture. Norwegian Terje Haakonsen, widely recognized as the best snowboarder in the world, opted to sit out Nagano altogether. Haakonsen even described I.O.C. president Juan Antonio Samaranch as an "Al Capone" figure. Samaranch shrugged off the boycott and said, "All I know is this: those who don't enter don't win."

    But controversy and failed pot tests aside, many snowboarders did come, and those who earned some hardware were happy to keep it. As gallons of freezing rain pelted spectators, riders and the media, the halfpipe (snowboarding's freestyle discipline) managed to go off without incident, as riders hurled themselves into the air before judges and the entire world. "Sticking" (landing) such "sick" (impressive) maneuvers as caballerials (backward 360[degree] rotations), McTwists (inverted 540[degree] spins) and Haakonsen's patented move, the Haakon flip (a 540[degree] with a flip), snowboarders showed everyone that rebels can be athletes.

    With two preliminary runs and two finals, the halfpipe riders powered through the relentless downpour, pumping up the resilient crowd that lined the course in bleachers and stood thousands deep at the bottom. In the end, Swiss rider Gian Simmen managed to edge out Norwegian Daniel Franck in the day's last run for the gold medal. American Ross Powers hung on for bronze with huge airs and rapid rotations. Germany's Nicola Thost took the first women's halfpipe gold and Norway's Stine Brun Kjeldaas picked up the silver. American Shannon Dunn slipped slightly just before the end of her second run to fall back from the lead, but took bronze.

    Although Rebagliati kept his medal, many within snowboarding felt the damage inflicted by the incident would unfairly taint his victory and the sport's debut. "Thanks to an idiotic mistake by the I.O.C., snowboarding's debut is going to be remembered as the year those wacky pot smokers invaded the Olympics, not as the year snowboarding athletes showed the world an amazing new sport," said Lee Crane, director of Snowboarding Online www.solsnowboarding.com ), a Website devoted to snowboard news. Still, many in snowboarding saw the notoriety as a chance to exert influence. "Snowboarding has always been about youth confronting adult society. That's why it has dramatically affected sports, fashion and music," says Brad Steward, president of Bonfire Snowboarding, a clothing manufacturer. "Now it's clear that snowboarding has an opportunity to influence larger social issues, and I think that's a positive opportunity for kids to speak their mind."

    Galbraith is a senior editor at Snowboarder magazine.