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On Performance Enhancement

“When Sha’Carri Richardson was barred from the Olympics this month after testing positive for marijuana, it ignited an ongoing conversation about whether the drug should be classified as performance-enhancing for athletes. Does getting high really improve strength, speed, agility or other outcomes?” That’s how Matt Richtel summarized the situation and posed the looming question for readers of the New York Times July 12.  

He rushed through the relevant background: “Marijuana was added to the list of banned substances after a Canadian gold medalist had tested positive for the drug in 1998. Shortly after, the U.S. Office of National Drug Control Policy put out a paper explaining that the medal ‘seemed to directly undercut our messages to young people that drug use undermines a child’s opportunities for success’.”  (Picture Four-Star General Barry McCaffrey reading those words aloud from a press release.)

The Canadian gold medalist was Ross Rebagliati, a teenager who zoomed down a slope in Nagano, Japan at 77 MPG to win the snowboarding championship in ‘98 —the first time it was an Olympic event. When his test came back positive for a wee small amount of THC metabolite, he was asked to return the gold medal. Rebagliati didn’t deny being a stoner but said he had abstained for 10 months and that he must have inhaled second-hand smoke while partying. The hastily conferring IOCC honchos reasoned that, given the adverse effects on motor coordination attributed to the herb by Capital-M Medicine, marijuana could not possibly be a performance enhancer. Rebagliati was allowed keep the gold medal.

The years passed, and in November 2018, when Dan Bilefsky of the Times called on Rebagliati in Kelowna, B.C., he reported that “The pioneering Olympic snowboarder keeps his gold medal hidden inside a beat-up cabinet in his modest home, next to an ashtray holding his car keys and a plastic bag of weed.

“ ‘I keep it there because it has brought me nothing but misfortune,’ said Mr. Rebagliati, with more than a hint of wistfulness. It was noon and he was enjoying a freshly rolled joint, his fourth of the day, from his comfortable living room.”

Rebagliati confirmed that he had stopped smoking pot 10 months ahead of his event in Nagano. He recalled his brief time served in a Japanese jail cell, accused of importing a controlled substance, and the disapproval of his fellow Canadians. When the IOCC declared him the winner after 36 hours, Bilefsky recounted, “He took his gold medal, which he had not yet given back, out of his front pocket and held it up for the television cameras. But he did not put it back around his neck.

“For Mr. Rebagliati, the damage was irreparable. Appearing on ‘The Tonight Show’ with Jay Leno immediately after the Olympics, the host referred to him as ‘nickel bag-liati,’ joking that ‘unlike Clinton, you inhaled but didn’t smoke.’ A mocking skit on Saturday Night Live ensured that his image as the poster boy for pot was seared into global popular culture.

“And he was never able to cash in fully on his fame. ‘Cannabis back then was seen as being for losers and lazy stoners,’ he recalled. ‘The big corporate sponsors didn’t want to sponsor me. I became a source of entertainment, a joke.”

Rebagliati’s class fall, as described by Bilefsky: “He bought and sold real estate, initially investing some of his snowboarding winnings, and he hoped to build a luxury hotel. But he went into debt when the property market crashed and he was forced to eke out a living as a builder. His first marriage ended in divorce.”

According to a site called Celebdoco “Alexandra Rebagliati filed for divorce against Ross in 2012. The main reason given was Ross’s constant weed consumption and while their children were also present. Alexandra commissioned to test one of their son’s hair for the trace of marijuana. The other reason for divorce is Ross cheating on her. Despite being married, he had a girlfriend, and she was pregnant with his child at the time.”

Bilefsky’s Times piece circled back to Rebagliati’s start: “Born in a Vancouver suburb he characterized as having ‘big houses and progressive politics’ to a geologist father and an accountant mother, Mr. Rebagliati became a skiing prodigy before he was 10 and he was being groomed for the Canadian national ski team. But he discovered snowboarding at 15, around the same time he tried marijuana for the first time, and was immediately drawn to the sport’s baggy pants and freewheeling, iconoclastic spirit.

“When he was unable to find a snowboard in a ski shop in British Columbia while he was in high school, Mr. Rebagliati built a makeshift snowboard from plywood, cutting off the toes of his ski boots and using the inner tube of a bike as a strap to hold his feet in place. He and his friends would train by sneaking into ski resorts in the Vancouver area before ski season began and hiking up the mountains... But when his parents discovered his plans to abandon professional skiing in favor of snowboarding, they kicked him out of the house, furious that, in their view, they had squandered so much money on his ski training.” Progressive politics, indeed.

As of 2018 things, according to Bilefsky, thing were on the upswing for Rebagliati. “Now 47, Mr. Rebagliati lives a quiet life in Kelowna, a mountainous winemaking city in British Columbia, with his second wife, Ali, a yoga instructor, and their two young children, Rosie, 6, and Rocco, 3. He also has a son, Ryan, who is nine, with his first wife.

“Mr. Rebagliati is hoping that Canada’s action to legalize marijuana last month will bring him closure, business opportunity and, perhaps most importantly, vindication. Emboldened by the end of the marijuana prohibition, he recently launched Legacy, a new cannabis lifestyle brand, teaming up with CRX, a cannabis health care company based in Calgary. He plans to sell items like marijuana-infused face creams, cannabis plant-growing kits and Ross Rebagliati branded skis and snowboards.”

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