Wednesday, February 11, 1998
Snowboarding and pot not a surprising comboNAGANO, Japan (AP) -- Skater Michelle Kwan, not exactly the first person you think of when marijuana comes to mind, didn't hesitate when someone asked her about that Canadian snowboarder whose gold medal was yanked because some of the stuff was found in his system.
"Rules are rules. You've got to follow them," she said flatly Wednesday. "It's very surprising to see an athlete busted for that."
Rules? Yes, rules were broken. But surprising? Doubtful.
To suggest that the people who put together the 1998 Winter Olympics didn't expect something -- anything -- by allowing snowboarding to become a medal sport is unlikely. They would have had to miss, or willfully ignore, the in-your-face attitudes that have long defined snowboarding -- and the very vocal counterculture that the sport has long attracted.
"If you were going to predict anything happening at the Olympics with a recreational drug, this is the sport you'd predict it in," said Art Taylor, director of youth sports at Northeastern University's Center for the Study of Sport in Society.
"Maybe," he said, "it moved into the Olympics too quickly."
Few wanted snowboarding in the Olympics more than Ross Rebagliati, 26, a spirited British Columbian with tousled blond hair, angled jaw and insouciant grin -- a surfer dude to make Central Casting proud.
Snowboarding became Rebagliati's life a decade ago; when he won the first-ever Olympic snowboarding gold Sunday in the men's giant slalom, he was ecstatic for his sport and himself.
Today, he finds himself at the center of the first major controversy since the games began. Not only was marijuana residue found in his urine, but he faces the added humiliation of being sanctioned for a drug that few would consider performance-enhancing.
"This will undoubtedly be tough for the sport," said Carol Anne Letheren, head of Canada's Olympic association.
Rebagliati maintains the 17.8 nanograms per milliliter of marijuana in his system came from second-hand smoke produced by people he was hanging out with at a going-away party last month in Canada, and that he hadn't smoked any since April 1997.
The Committee for the Arbitration of Sport, an independent appeal panel that has overturned International Olympic Committee drug sanctions before, was meeting early Thursday to decide Rebagliati's final fate. But whatever the outcome, whatever facts ultimately emerge, this brouhaha only reinforces the notion -- true or false -- that snowboarding is a sport for the young and brash.
"The public sort of looks at this and thinks, 'Ah -- snowboarders are all wild and crazy,"' said Rob Roy, a coach for the U.S. snowboarding team. "That's not good."
The perception, however, has precedent. Consider this from Rebagliati when he was interviewed by Associated Press Television on Tuesday, hours before he learned of the test results: "I've always just done the things I wanted to do and don't do the things I don't want to do."
Or this: "I don't care if they accept us or don't accept us. Snowboarding is a fact of life."
Such statements, while made good-naturedly in the glow of gold-medal euphoria, nonetheless underscore the risk the Olympics establishment took by admitting snowboarding -- a sport full of people who, compared with many Olympic athletes, come across as full of themselves and exuberantly anti-establishment.
"Snowboarding belongs to youth. And we love youth," said Lewis H. Carlson, head of the American Studies program at Western Michigan University, who has studied the popular culture of the Olympics.
"These kids live on the edge," he said. "Snowboarding captures a lot of the verve of America -- the speed, the gambling and taking chances, the creativity. But any sport that we associate with surfing eventually goes back to California, which Americans in the heartland have been suspicious of for a long time."
They're not the only ones. Many ski areas still ban or severely restrict snowboarding, and some say the close votes on Rebagliati's sanction -- by both the IOC's Medical Commission and its executive board -- reflect the ambivalence many in the Olympic establishment still feel toward the sport.
"For these Olympic organizers, this probably makes them ask, 'Why did we bring these people in who have these funny habits?"' Taylor said. "We're dealing with a sport that's new, and suddenly it's in this highly cultured, highly international environment. And that does create a culture shock."
Marc Hodler, an IOC executive board member and president of the international ski federation, whose rules govern snowboarding in the Olympics, predicted the sanctions wouldn't hurt his organization.
"The organization hasn't taken anything," he said. "Organizations don't smoke, they don't drink, and they don't eat."
The ski federation's very oversight raised hackles in the snowboarding community, where some felt the sport's own governing body, the International Snowboarding Federation, would have represented their interests better. Star Norwegian snowboarder Terje Haakonsen, a three-time world champion, is boycotting the Olympics because of that.
Before he tested positive, Rebagliati scorned Haakonsen's decision to stay away.
"He screwed up his place in the history books," Rebagliati said. "At least history will remember me."
Of that much, if nothing else, Ross Rebagliati can be confident.