Gold, silver, bronze … green?
The Winter Games commence Feb. 12 in Vancouver, British Columbia, the most marijuana-friendly host city in Olympic history, a place where restrictions on pot are loose enough to allow “consumption lounges,” some of which are extending their hours to accommodate a wave of jet-lagged international visitors.
What does one smoke at such “coffeeshops?” Perhaps something harvested the summer before from the mountains an hour north, near Whistler, where the Alpine skiing events will take place amidst lush forests that are said to contain crops of remarkable potent strains of cannabis.
But hold on there, Michael Phelps, don’t light that Olympic torch yet.
Marijuana’s primary psychoactive component, delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, is on the World Anti-Doping Agency’s list of substances that are prohibited in competition in Olympic sports. Because it remains detectible long after ingestion, Olympians must steer clear of it for weeks or months ahead of drug testing.
So how’s this for absurd? While fans, coaches, sponsors (and yes, members of the media) might be lighting up at the New Amsterdam Cafe or the Vapor Lounge on Hastings Street in downtown Vancouver, the hockey players and figure skaters will be peeing in cups just a few blocks away, hoping they don’t fail the whiz quiz.
Let’s be blunt: these are the Pot Olympics, where progressive laws and the war on dopers could collide as never before. Some are hoping the conflict will light up some healthy public debate and self-examination for the anti-doping movement. Would you be surprised to hear that Ross Rebagliati is in this crowd?
Rebagliati is best known for testing positive for THC after winning a gold medal for Canada in the giant slalom in snowboarding’s first Winter Games in Nagano, Japan in 1998. His medal was revoked, although he won it back after mounting a secondhand-smoke defense.
“The message that the I.O.C. is saying by adding it to the list of performance-enhancing drugs is that marijuana is performance-enhancing,” says Rebagliati. “I don’t think it’s ever been a performance-enhancement, nor has it been portrayed that way.”
Now 39 and a father, and planning a run for national office in Canada, Rebagliati has recovered from the psychological trauma of the international scandal he sparked up in Nagano. He recently published a book charting the colorful history of snowboarding, which doubles as a biography. In “Off The Chain, An Insider’s History of Snowboarding,” Rebagliati writes that he and his fellow competitors avidly smoked dope in the years leading up to Nagano, in part to overcome jet lag. He says he stopped in April of 1997 in order to clean his system for his sport’s drug testing program, but was exposed to “clouds of dense, resinous smoke” at some parties he attended in Whistler.
“Although boarders want to win, we don’t want to win badly enough to wreck our livers with anabolic steroids or ruin our hearts with methamphetamines,” Rebagliati writes. “We care, but we don’t care that much. Our drive is tempered by a certain slacker-ish undercurrent, and marijuana embodies that ethic. Of the hundred guys on tour in the early nineties, I’d say about half smoked marijuana more or less regularly, and of the female riders, somewhat fewer.”
Rebagliati ultimately got his gold medal back not because of the secondhand-smoke defense, but because an arbitration panel decided the I.O.C. hadn’t explicitly banned marijuana and the anti-doping rules of the International Ski Federation (or F.I.S., which oversees snowboarding) were written too vaguely. The phrase “penalties may be imposed,” was one example.
It was suggested, in Rebagliati’s arbitration hearing, that pot could theoretically enhance performance for downhill skiers and ski jumpers to the extent that marijuana is thought to overcome natural resistance against risk. Rebagliati laughs at this idea. “The use of cannabis in a high-profile situation basically gives you anxiety, that’s something that everybody will stand up and admit,” he says. “There’s a time and place for everything, and a high-profile event where you’re on the chopping block is not it. There’s TV cameras and reporters, your peers and your family, everybody watching you on TV. I can tell you unequivocally that it would never make sense to use cannabis to calm your nerves or whatever.”
Like many, Rebagliati would like to see THC come off the banned list. As more and more U.S. states establish the legality of marijuana for medical purposes, and as professional sports leagues focus more resources on catching athletes who cheat with powerful drugs like human growth hormone or erythropoietin, it may be time for a new debate about the ban on pot.
Then again, not everyone is on board.
What goes on the road stays on the road, unless perhaps you’re on the road with your fellow snowboarders in a van that is spray-painted with a big red shark’s mouth on the front grill.
Last summer, some of the world’s best snowboarders including Americans Danny Kass, a double-medalist at the 2002 Games, and Vancouver-bound halfpipe star Louie Vito, who is challenging Shaun White for halfpipe supremacy were staying in Wanaka, New Zealand, a place elite snowsports competitors often train in July and August.
The group bought a van and painted the front end of it with a wild-looking set of shark chompers. The side of the van was painted with the words “Radical Dude.” The local cops, apparently, were unimpressed. “The cops decided to target them, to pull them over,” says Vito’s agent, Todd Hahn. “They did an illegal search on where they were staying. They ransacked the house. There was nothing to find. When everything came to light, they brought them into the station house and there was nothing. It was harassment from the police. They assumed they’d have something, especially with the van.”
Hahn says it was a case of “hillbilly cops” biased by the popular perception of snowboarders as stoners. “That’s a 1980s stereotype that just doesn’t seem to go away,” Hahn says. “When you look at stick and ball athletes, they have a lot more drug issues and problems.”
Several New Zealand newspapers quoted authorities saying that two Americans their names were not released had been in possession of an amount of marijuana that was not substantial enough to merit criminal charges. Hahn said the charges were expunged before the snowboarders even saw a judge, but the damage was done. “They’re not even named, and everybody assumed who it was,” Hahn says. “These kids’ reputations were damaged for something they didn’t even do. Any time you’re arrested, and you’re high profile, it becomes an issue.”
Hahn says he notified the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association, the national governing body for snowboarding, and informed them about what happened. Hahn says USSA called Vito and questioned him about the incident.
“I called and told them exactly what the deal was,” Hahn says. “They don’t do anything unless somebody’s guilty. They talked to Louie and asked him questions about what happened … they did their due diligence.”
Tom Kelly, USSA’s vice president for communications, would not say if the team had contacted Vito. Kelly would only confirm that “there was an incident, there were no charges filed,” and said that the New Zealand trip was not an official part of the U.S. Snowboarding team’s program.
Sarah Lewis, the secretary-general of the FIS, said she had “no information” about an arrest of American snowboarders in New Zealand.
Hahn declined to make Vito available for an interview about what Hahn says is a “non-issue.” “Louie’s passed every test they’ve given him,” Hahn says. “It’s not a performance-enhancing drug, but they do test for it. All these Olympians know that it’s something they test for. If they get busted they’re out. Anybody who’s serious about going to the Olympics stays away from that stuff.”
When the Daily News caught up with Rebagliati for an interview last month, he was on the way to the chairlifts at Apex Mountain, taking a break from politics. When Canada’s next parliamentary election takes place, Rebagliati will be the Liberal party’s candidate to represent the Okanagan-Coquihalla district near Vancouver. Marijuana legalization isn’t his main concern, but he speaks passionately about the historical usefulness of hemp and the windfall of public funds that could potentially follow from taxing legal pot. “In our current state of affairs, we can use any money we can get our hands on right now,” he says. “I think exploring it now would be a good move.”
In the past, Rebagliati was loathe to talk about the scandal that made him a household name (when he visited The Tonight Show in 1998, Jay Leno called him “Nickel-bag-liati”). But now that the Games are coming to his hometown, Rebagliati has addressed it more freely. It helps him promote his handsome book, which uses archival photographs to map the rise of snowboarding from the early 1960s to Shaun White. The Nagano chapter is short and revealing. Rebagliati was 26 when 17.8 nanograms of THC metabolites caused his gold medal to go up in smoke three days after he won it. In a series of close votes, the I.O.C. decided to revoke the medal. The Canadians appealed, and the Court of Arbitration for Sport oversaw a hearing days later.
One arbitrator present was sports-law attorney Richard Young. He recalls seeing the late Marc Hodler, the extremely dignified, Swiss-born president of the F.I.S., sitting through the testimony about how the weed Rebagliati had been exposed to was an especially potent type grown in the woods around Whistler. “He isn’t a guy who would have know a lot about marijuana,” Young recalls of Hodler. “If you’re talking fine champagne, he might have known it.”
As farcical as it all seems now, it wasn’t funny at the time. Rebagliati says learning of his positive test was “pure devastation.” He claims to have lost weight and been unable to sleep as the entire world consumed the salacious story of his positive drug test. An aspect of his humiliation, he says, was seeing the glory he’d brought to Canada immediately turn into controversy. “That was really the last thing in the world I would want anyone to go through,” he says. “I was exhausted beyond what I ever experienced in training. Over the years it’s gone from a nightmare to something that I’ve really tried to turn from a negative to something that was positive.”
The chaos surrounding the Rebagliati case helped inspire the establishment of WADA, which harmonized Olympic anti-doping efforts. Rebagliati says he has been able to gain the respect of people who weren’t his supporters. Several times in the interview, he stresses that he doesn’t condone the use of alcohol or tobacco by minors, and he warns against stereotyping. “Not all snowboarders smoke pot, and not all people who smoke pot are down and out in Beverly Hills,” he says.
Marc Emery, the head of the B.C. Marijuana Party, runs Cannabis Culture, an emporium on Hastings Street with bongs and hemp products for sale downstairs, and lounges above where visitors are encouraged to smoke their own dope. Emery is going all-out for the Games, keeping the place open late, hiring magicians, and handing out propaganda. “It’s good for our political goals,” says Emery, who is facing extradition to the U.S. for extending his mail-order seed business south of the border.
Emery doesn’t expect to see any athletes visit his smoky establishment, except perhaps after they’ve completed their events, and he disagrees with the assessment that pot isn’t a performance-enhancer. “The reality is it’s a performance-enhancing drug,” he says. “It allows you to forget your aches and pains and focus on what you’re doing. I know skateboarders and snowboarders are always using it.”
At the medals ceremonies, where musical acts are slated to perform, Emery expects to see a cloud of smoke lingering above the crowd. Maybe the athletes will even be able to smell it from the podium. “There will be pot at the medals ceremonies,” Emery says. “It will be interesting if they pick up a contact high just by being in Vancouver.”
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