When Ross Rebagliati was nominated recently as the Liberal Party candidate for his home constituency of Okanagan-Coquihalla in the next Canadian federal election, he declared bullishly: “I think I’m going to bring the country together.”
Here was an ambitious, eloquent young politician, a veritable pillar of his vast, scattered British Columbia community; all-round nice guy, businessman, photogenic celebrity, assiduous charity fund-raiser and respected family man. Maybe PM one day too?
“Oh, I never say never,” he says.
Yet his confident sound bite that selection night was tinged with irony.
Bringing his country together? Was this upstanding figure really the same free spirit who 12 years before, at the Nagano Winter Games, had actually divided a nation, the sportsman at the centre of one of the biggest — and, to some, hilariously dopiest – Olympic controversies of all when he won, lost and regained a gold medal in an apparent puff of cannabis smoke?
“I was a hero to some, zero to others,” as he puts it. Cool, thoroughly modern hero as the first-ever slalom gold medallist in the new Olympic sport of snowboarding, but punk zero to those compatriots disgusted when, three days after his win, his gold medal was stripped because minute traces of marijuana showed up in his drugs test.
Rebagliati, who never denied having smoked dope in the past but insisted he had stopped 10 months earlier when preparing for the Games, appealed, claiming he must have inhaled second-hand smoke at a pre-Olympic farewell party thrown by friends in his home resort of Whistler.
He then won his medal back anyway after Olympic chiefs conceded, farcically, that marijuana was not even on their list of banned substances.
The story seemed a hoot, the inevitable consequence of the free-spirited counter-culture of snowboarding — “the World Cup circuit was like one big grad party,” – colliding with the venerable and pompous five rings.
“Roll a fatty for Rebagliati!” was the banner when he returned home defiantly insisting he wasn’t about to change his friends.
But to an anxious 26 year-old, it felt desperately unfunny. Indeed, Rebagliati now reckons he has effectively spent the last decade “trying to restore my name and rectify my image and reputation”.
From party animal to party candidate, he runs me through a “really wild” reinvention trip, starting with a nightmare which he has never completely erased.
Being interrogated by Japanese police and feeling “frightened like a prisoner of war”; being “effectively called a cheat” by International Olympic Committee president Juan Antonio Samaranch, who put the medal round his neck then days later made it clear he did not believe his defence of passive smoking.
Then there was the odd death threat and hate letter. He slumped into “post-traumatic stress which lingered for years”, at one point feeling as if just going shopping was too much of a public ordeal.
Rebagliati’s sporting career died there and then. “Things came crumbling down around me. I changed; I was a lot more happy go lucky and trusting before those Games but afterwards I was traumatised, in the wrong state to handle the pressure.”
It depressed him that for years US immigration put him on a “no fly” list as an undesirable because of his marijuana stigma. So if he wanted to cross the border to compete or to visit his mum in California, he would have to suffer the indignity of a strip search. Disillusioned, he quit the year after his win.
The stereotyping was hard to live down; he was even prompted to win an out-of-court settlement against a television company after their soap drama Whistler featured an alcoholic, womanising, blackmailing Olympic snowboarder who, er, just so happened to look the spit of him.
Now, the Winter Olympics are coming to his Vancouver backyard. Next month should be Rebagliati’s hour; the local hero at the head of the parade.
Indeed, he was so inspired by the thought of the snowboarding being in Whistler that he even attempted a brief comeback. If he hadn’t run out of money, he believed he would have made this year’s team, even at 38.
Instead, he is just an afterthought, not even officially invited to attend the event. Eddie Edwards, our great British loser, was asked to carry the torch but Vancouver’s own historic champion only got the call after a leading Canadian TV personality made a stink about him being sidelined. As for the IOC? “They think I’m an embarrassment to them,” he shrugs.
Not to Liberal Party bosses, though. He’s their rising star, one to connect with young voters. Last October, the reinvented Rebagliati, now married and doting dad to seven-month-old Ryan, running a real estate business alongside wife Alexandra and involved in numerous philanthropic projects, was approached by Canada’s opposition party to stand against Conservative government minister Stockwell Day in the federal elections.
It looks a hospital pass. Day is a major political figure and the seat sounds practically unwinnable. Not to Rebagliati, though. “Unwinnable? That’s how my Olympic chances were once perceived too, but it never stopped me.
“I really feel honoured to have been invited because a lot of times I wondered, ‘I’m famous but is it for the right reasons? Do people really support me or do they think I’m a joke?’”
Later this year, he may well find out. The electioneering is going to be demanding in a constituency which, even though it has only about 100,000 voters, covers “roughly the size of England”. No prizes for guessing how many will grill him on one subject: drugs.
He will not hide his support for the legalisation of cannabis. “It’s going out on a limb for sure but I don’t have anything to lose,” he says. After all, he adds, surely winning the Olympics “proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that it can be part of a healthy lifestyle”.
And so does he still smoke pot? There is a pause before he says: “There are things, like not having been allowed into the US, which scare me about answering that question. But I think anyone with half a brain could probably answer that question without asking.”
Bill Clinton, eat your heart out.
By Ian Chadband