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    Sunday, February 8, 1998

    A great day for snowboarding

     SHIGA KOGEN, Japan (CP) -- Ross Rebagliati had been snowboarding's first ever Olympic champion for just five hours, but already he had had more than 100 microphones stuck in his face -- at least 98 more than at any other time in the past 10 years.
     His signature was scribbled on at least a few hundred tickets, jackets, hats, even hands and forearms throughout the Olympic host city of Nagano and the northeastern Shiga Kogen ski resort, where he made sporting history winning the slalom in a combined time of two minutes 3.96 seconds.
     But when it was suggested he should walk the three blocks to the Canada Olympic House for a recpetion celebrating his medal, Rebagliati pulled up.
     "After the medal ceremony they said 'Let's just walk over (to Canada House)' and I was like, 'I don't think so,"' the Whistler, B.C., native said. "People were going crazy."
     For years, snowboarders were seen as lunatics. Now, after the sport's Olympic christening, it's the fans who are going crazy.
     As Rebagliati tried to make his way toward the medal podium, thousands of screaming fans were reaching and lunging to get a piece of the gold medallist.
     He may have won Canada's first gold of the 1998 Games, and he may be remembered as the first snowboarding Olympic champion, but Rebagliati's most important feat this day was the symbolic one: In a matter of seconds he tranformed the sport from sideshow to centre-stage production. He helped open the door and the world, apparently, liked what it saw.
     "My Olympic dream is not very old," said teammate Mark Fawcett, one of the pre-race favorites who went off-course in the first run because his binding broke. "It's amazing to me now that there's six-year-old kids saying they want to go to the Olympics some day in snowboarding. There was no such thing as snowboarding when I was six.
     "It's going to be a great thing in years to come. We've pioneered the sport and ... that's a great feeling," Fawcett added.
     Many observers believe inclusion in the Olympics has come at the perfect time for snowboarding.
     Carol Anne Letheren, the head of the Canadian Olympic Association, said that snowboarding is expanding from its traditional teenage base to more age groups.
     "It is a sport we didn't understand," Letheren said. "Adults are switching (from skiing) and saying, 'You have to try it. This is going to take off. I think it's more from seeing it in the context of competition and not just the Canadian medal."
     Scott Maceachern, an Oregon-based marketing manager for sport-apparel giant Nike, said snowboarding is having a huge impact on the sporting world.
     "That's the question that needs to be asked: How is snowboarding changing the Olympics, not how the Olympics is changing snowboarding," Maceachern said.
     Nike sees a huge market developing for snowboarding equipment and garb.
     That should benefit Rebagliati, who like many other snowboarders has had to rely on odd-jobs, handouts from his parents and a pitance in prize money as a snowboarding pro.
     "People want to be part of it," Maceachern said of the sport's growing mainstream popularity. "They want to be part of that youthfulness and they want to be able to get back to being care-free."
     Mike Wood, the head of the Canadian Snowboarding Federation, believes the Olympics have confirmed snowboard's status as a technical sport for trained athletes, not just showoffs in baggy pants who can hang in the air, somersault, and speak a language many don't yet understand -- snowboard-ease.
     "This opens all young kids' eyes to what snowboarding is all about: being free-spirited and having goals, but achieving them on your own terms," Wood said. "This is going to motivate some kids. A majority of them will say 'Hey, snowboarding is where it's at.'
     "I'm just glad there's a guy like Ross they can look up to."
     Since snowboarding made its first appearance on ski slopes about 10 years ago, the skateboarder and surfer background has been the dominant image in the public's mind.
     "The punk kid type of attitude to the sport has sort of hindered it but at the same time given it the free spirit that it has been built on," Wood said. "We've been in the big show now and proven that snowboarding is a legitimate sport and Canada is one of the leaders. It's branched out to being more than snowboarders against skiers.
     "The best way to preserve that free spirit is to go to the top of the lift and carve power."