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Ross Rebagliati: coming 'round the mountain of infamy

Ross Rebagliati is to be a Liberal candidate in the next federal election.

Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail

Ross Rebagliati knows what you think of him. He's "that guy" - the dude who tested positive for marijuana in 1998 after winning the gold medal for Canada in snowboarding, the first year the sport was included in the Olympic Games.

And he knows that mention of it will always be there, often in the first sentence of articles written about him.

It doesn't matter that he had 17 billionths of a gram in his blood - the result of secondhand smoke, he said - or that days later he got the medal back when it was discovered in the appeal process that marijuana was not on the list of banned substances.

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But it's only now, more than 10 years later, that he is managing to fight his way back from the infamy that he says devastated his life.

He has written a book, Off the Chain: An Insider's History of Snowboarding , released in November, in which he puts the issue in perspective and takes the high road, describing his love for the sport from its early days in the late eighties, when snowboarders were banned from ski hills, to its inclusion in the Olympics.

"If I had written this book any earlier, it would have been much darker," he says.

In the fall, when approached by the federal Liberal party, he jumped at the chance to run as a candidate in the next election in the Okanagan-Coquihalla riding in B.C., currently held by Stockwell Day.

The Vancouver native also speaks openly about how the Olympic committee continues to shun him. "They hate me," he says unequivocally while in Toronto recently on book tour. "They called me a liar. They didn't want to give me my medal back. They never use images of me."

Is he bitter?

"Oh yes," he practically snorts. "Because they use images of athletes who won medals, and they deserve it. You don't get anything for being an Olympian."

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The assumption that Olympic medal winners in Canada make a lot of money is "a huge misconception."

Mr. Rebagliati was not asked to be a torchbearer in next month's Winter Olympics, despite filling out an application, until his exclusion became the subject of a Twitter fight between the CBC's Rick Mercer and Heritage Minister James Moore after the TV host asked Mr. Rebagliati if he was going to be involved. "The call came after that," Mr. Rebagliati says. "And I'm really excited."

It has been a long road to this particular podium of self-worth.

"I had PTSD after," the 38-year-old states bluntly, referring to post-traumatic stress disorder, commonly suffered by soldiers returning from the battlefield.

"I came back from the Olympics in Nagano as somebody known for something other than athletics. I wasn't able to function normally. I didn't have the mental capacity to do anything."

He credits his wife, Alexandra, with helping him pick up the pieces.

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"My wife was really the beginning of the rest of my life," he says without hesitation. He proposed to her two weeks after they met at a charity hockey event in Toronto in 2004. A nurse who also had a degree in marketing and public relations, she "was able to rebrand my brand. Alexandra just wanted me to continue doing my snowboarding thing and live up to the celebrity and use the gold medal for positive reasons, for kids and stuff like that, rather than stashing it away and hiding it and hopefully never seeing it by accident because it didn't represent anything good to me. It represented the demise of my life."

Almost all of his endorsement deals dried up post-Nagano. Even the snowboarding community, known for its renegade reputation, shunned him, he says.

His wife, who is seven years his junior and the mother of their six-month-old son, encouraged him to do more charity work. He opened a snowboarding camp. His father-in-law, an American lawyer, helped him get off the no-fly list in the U.S., on which he had been placed because of his positive-drug test.

Having always supported himself as a real-estate agent, he tried to use his name in other ways - for possible reality shows or in the media. All those efforts, including a bid to provide commentary on TV for the Olympics, have been met with silence.

Starting in 2006, when Vancouver's bid for the 2010 Olympics was successful, Mr. Rebagliati spent two years training to make a comeback in his hometown event, on hills where he had spent his youth. But he found it hard to get support from sponsors and couldn't afford the investment required to build up points through racing on circuits around the world - the system by which athletes qualify to be Olympic contenders.

"I was disappointed, but I was also relieved," he says. "It's a very stressful and anxiety-ridden affair to go for the Olympics."

Still, he had regained his desire to prevail - even if only to win back his good name. In 2006, he sued CTV for misappropriation of image when a blue-eyed, blond-haired snowboarder, who had won Olympic gold, was introduced in the drama series Whistler .

"The character was a real loser. … I didn't like it that people would think that's me. And I felt I had been ripped off already - and to be ripped off again?"

The suit was settled out of court; he won't disclose the amount he was paid.

The idea of running for political office came as a surprise, but he has always been interested in political issues and in the game.

"It's not like if someone says something negative about me that I'll be shocked the way I was when I came back from the Olympics," he explains. "I was getting death threats. So was my family. … Some Canadians thought I was the worst thing ever."

And even though he is unsure how his reputation might help or hinder him in politics, he is ready for the challenge.

"People think they know me because of what they read, because of that first sentence," he says. "But I feel I am just like everybody else, and I've had good times and bad times."

With that, he takes his Olympic gold medal out of a little pouch clipped to his belt, and places it on the table.

Why is he showing me that? I ask.

"Because I knew you'd like to see it." He smiles proudly. "People do."

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About the Author
Life columnist

Sarah Hampson is an award-winning journalist whose work started appearing in The Globe and Mail in 1998, when she was invited to write a column. Since 1993, when she began her career in journalism, she had been writing for all of Canada's major magazines, including Toronto Life, Saturday Night (now defunct), Chatelaine, Report on Business and Canadian Art, among others. More

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