Ross Rebagliati (Interview)

Canadian snowboarder Ross REBAGLIATI hit the big time at the 1998 Winter OLYMPICS in Nagano, where he won gold and then had his medal taken away after testing positive for marijuana.

This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on November 16, 2009

Rebagliati, Ross (Interview)

Canadian snowboarder Ross REBAGLIATI hit the big time at the 1998 Winter OLYMPICS in Nagano, where he won gold and then had his medal taken away after testing positive for marijuana. By the time the IOC overturned its decision five days later - on the technicality that pot was not explicitly banned in Olympic competition - he was a worldwide celebrity. Now, more than a decade later, the 38-year-old is hoping to parlay his fame into a seat in Parliament.

Q: A couple of years ago, you were talking about making a comeback for the Vancouver 2010 Games. What happened to that idea?

A: Nothing happened to the idea, but the process to get back onto the national team put me right back at the junior level, competing against 15-year-olds. It wasn't the sort of World Cup competition I needed, and the cost of it was more than I was able to come up with at the time. That made a comeback virtually impossible.

Q: Did you actually end up racing against 15-year-olds?

A: Oh yeah. I travelled down to Colorado and did a couple of races at Copper Mountain. And I made plans to go over to Europe and compete in the Europa Cup, the circuit below the World Cup. I felt like my riding was at a point where I would have quickly been able to get back to the level I needed to be at. But I just wasn't able to enter into those races based on the system we have in Canada. In other countries, if you're an ex-gold-medallist, you automatically have a spot on the national team. But to come back from retirement in Canada isn't as easy.

Q: Still, snowboarding is such a competitive sport in Canada. You retired in 1999 - after such a long layoff you really thought you had a realistic shot of making the Olympics?

A: Absolutely. I've been riding for more than 20 years, and at the time I really hadn't been away from it at all. I was living in Whistler, riding all the time. And I had my camps in Italy, coaching other racers. But the costs - just to join a team with a coach is $10,000 - and you add in plane tickets, car rentals, hotels, etc., and it quickly adds up.

Q: There wasn't a sponsor who was ready to step up?

A: Nope. Canada's a small country that way. The opportunities are limited. Ever since I came back from Nagano, really, the sponsorships have dwindled.

Q: Are you disappointed that you won't be competing in Vancouver?

A: Not at all. The Nagano Olympics were an extension of my career as it was - I had been competing since the late 1980s. But the idea of being there, at home, in 2010, was a great motivator. I just wanted to give it a shot.

Q: Now, the focus has changed. You've just been acclaimed as the federal Liberal candidate in the B.C. riding of Okanagan-Coquihalla. Why politics?

A: Politics is something I've been interested in for some time. I worked for the LIBERAL PARTY in Whistler when I lived there. And I worked for the party when I moved to Kelowna a couple of years ago. As I got older and started to pay more attention to what is happening in the world and what is happening in Canada, it has become an interest of mine to see how I could contribute. And when the opportunity came up in Okanagan-Coquihalla - especially given that there wasn't going to be a Liberal running in the next election - not only did I think it was an opportunity, but a responsibility as well.

Q: So did the Liberals approach you, or did you approach them?

A: They approached me. It came up over lunch and I thought about it for a few minutes, and by the end of the meal, I had decided to do it.

Q: Would you describe yourself as a lifelong Liberal?

A: Yes.

Q: I understand that you once met Pierre Trudeau. How did that happen?

A: It was in Whistler in 1990 or '91. I was working as a busboy at Sushi Village, and Mr. TRUDEAU came in for dinner. I had the opportunity, and honour, to clear his table at the end of the night. I told him how pleased I was, and he asked me a few questions about what I was doing. I mentioned that I was an aspiring professional snowboarder. He wished me all the best and signed a napkin. It was a really great experience.

Q: Do you still have the napkin?

A: Don't. It might pop up somewhere, but I haven't seen it lately.

Q: What do you think of Michael Ignatieff?

A: Well, I think Michael IGNATIEFF has been a great leader for the Liberal party, and we're looking forward to the next election campaign. I know the issues are important ones, and as far as I can tell he's doing a great job of putting those issues on the table and making sure that a great Canadian tradition is carried on.

Q: There's a new Angus-Reid poll that suggests only 15 per cent of Canadians approve of Ignatieff's performance as Liberal leader. Why do you think he's in such difficulty?

A: That's a great question. But right now, I'm not prepared to talk about Mr. Ignatieff's popularity. I don't feel like I have enough information to make a comment on that.

Q: Okay. But you say that you think he's doing a great job. What is it that he's doing right?

A: He's addressing some of the issues that are important to Canadians. For example, calling for equal pay in the workforce for men and women. I think that's a standard that Canada should take on to set a world example. I think the fact that we're one of the worst performing countries in terms of the ENVIRONMENT is unacceptable. Canada is known as a green, great outdoors sort of country, and the fact that we are contributing more to greenhouse gases than most civilized nations is embarrassing, frankly.

Q: What would you like to see Canada do on the environment?

A: I'd like to see some more sustainable energy - wind power and solar power. Those are flourishing industries and could create a lot of jobs in areas of Canada where there hasn't been a lot of economic activity. Places that are in the middle of nowhere, where there isn't a lot going on. Aside from energy, we have the issue of logging. At this point in time, we're bucking up trees, sending them overseas whole to be cut and processed in foreign mills. That's not good. We've got to protect our jobs here in Canada. Specifically here in the Okanagan-Coquihalla riding.

Q: Are there other issues that you feel strongly about?

A: Absolutely. Affordable child care is one of them - helping out young families. The children are the future. And I think the seniors' health care situation has to improve. I've always maintained that a healthy senior population equals a healthy youth population, as the elders are the ones who teach the youth. If you have a healthy senior population, it just transcends all the way down the line.

Q: What about youth issues? What would you do to try and get young people more involved in Canadian politics?

A: What I'm doing right now - stepping up to the plate and taking a stand against the current political way of thinking. And basically informing young people that voting is important, one vote can make a difference. If we can all get together and vote one way or another, I think democracy in Canada would work a lot better, and represent Canadians in a much broader way. My message to younger Canadians, and I mean 40 and under, is that complacency is not acceptable. We're sending our Canadian soldiers overseas to create a democracy in a foreign land, and a lot of them are paying the ultimate price. And we can't even bring ourselves to vote here, when we have that right and privilege? To me, that's unacceptable.

Q: Have you been a regular voter?

A: No I haven't. I've voted on a couple of occasions in the past, but I've been in exactly the same situation as most young people. I've not cared about the politicians running for office, and they've basically not reached out to our demographic. The messages have been geared to an older generation.

Q: You've mentioned Ignatieff. Are there other politicians you admire?

A: Sure, Trudeau. He was in power before I could understand what politics was all about, but he had a cool car and all the girls liked him. And when you're a teenager, that's kind of what you are looking forward to - a driver's license and a girlfriend. That's a way he kind of related to young people at the time. And of course, prime minister CHRÉTIEN was someone who reached out to me when I was at the Olympics, going through a hard time. He phoned to let me know that he supported me, and that Canadians supported me, at a time when I was feeling quite ashamed of what had happened. For that, he's at the top of my list. And now, President Obama has set a new standard, also reaching out to the youth and to minority groups who have felt, or been treated as, less than 100 per cent American.

Q: You've got a tough hill to climb in Okanagan-Coquihalla. Stockwell Day and the Conservatives won the riding by 20,000 votes in 2008. How are you going to take him on?

A: I'm going to take him on the way I've taken on all the things in my life - full speed ahead, pedal to the metal. I wouldn't expect somebody less than Stockwell DAY to be my opponent. What kind of victory would it be if all the best guys weren't there?

Q: Any chance we're going to see you in a wetsuit on a Jet Ski?

A: Not unless I'm getting towed into a 100-foot wave surfing off the coast of California.

Q: You've made reference to what you are best known for - winning gold in Nagano. How do you see your Olympic experience translating to politics?

A: Well, it was a very political situation. I was on the international stage dealing with a borderline-criminal happening. I was put in a Japanese jail for several hours and interrogated, there were potential charges that could have been imposed on me if I had been unsuccessful in my fight to get my medal back again. When I did get my medal back, that famous picture of me holding it up was actually taken on the steps of the Japanese police station - I don't think people realize that. For me, the Olympics was a heavily politicized event. I felt like I went from being a 26-year-old snowboard racer to a politician in a matter of hours, having to hold my own ground without any media training at all. It wasn't exactly a confidence-building experience at the time, but looking back at it now, I did gain a lot of insight.

Q: Do you think your fame will help or hinder you in your campaign?

A: I absolutely think that it's going to help me - name recognition is something that money can't buy. The youth have been following me ever since Nagano, and not only the youth. I do have quite a following with all age groups - from the kids who are 10 today, not even conceived when I was at the Olympics, to seniors of 100 years. I've been recognized by seniors when I'm walking my dog in the park and stopped to talk to them, being completely dumbfounded by the fact that people not only know my name but can visually recognize me after having not really been in the media over a period of time. So, absolutely it's going to help me.

Q: There's been a downside to that recognition as well. You ended up in a legal battle with CTV over what you felt was a misappropriation of your image for the TV drama Whistler. Do you think Canadians have an accurate idea of who you are?

A: I think they're beginning to. If they didn't already have an accurate idea from my performance after winning the medal - how I showed my integrity in my fight to regain the gold. And since I've stepped up to the plate here for the Liberal nomination, that will speak volumes about who I am as a person, and my character as well. I have a lot of work to do, but I will do my best to prove to my constituents that I am their best bet.

Q: In one interview, you described your job since the Olympics as basically "being Ross." What does that entail?

A: At a certain point, everybody has to face who they are as a person. And I've always maintained that one of the biggest lessons I learned during my hard time in Nagano was to try and stay true to my character. The last thing you want to do is put yourself out as something you are not. With me, what you see is what you get.

Q: How are you making your living these days?

A: [Laughs.] Good question! This summer I spent time framing houses. This afternoon, I'm going to be driving a pilot truck for a friend who delivers houseboats. I spent time over the winter writing a book on the history of snowboarding which will be launched Nov. 15. I do what I can, when I can, however I can. We're one of those struggling families, just like a lot of people in this riding. I know what they are feeling, I understand how a lack of money affects a family and young kids. That's been a major motivation for me to step up and try to make life a little bit better.

Q: What will you be doing during the Olympics this February?

A: I'll be in both Whistler and Vancouver, not only supporting the Canadian athletes, but promoting my book, doing some signings. I'm going to try to get into as many events as I can, but I don't have a single ticket. But as far as I'm concerned I'm just going to flash my gold medal.

Q: Did you try to get tickets?

A: No, I didn't try ... My relationship with the Olympics has always been a positive one. I grew up watching them and looked up to Olympic athletes, and I still hold the same respect for them as I did back then. But having gone through the Olympic machine, and come out the other end, it's like a been-there, done-that sort of thing. I will definitely be in Vancouver enjoying the festivities and the Olympic spirit; it will be an amazing time.

Q: But VANOC or the Canadian Olympic Committee aren't setting our former gold medal winners up with tickets?

A: I have no idea.

Q: A few weeks ago, Canadian luger Regan Lauscher was in the news for a blog she wrote criticizing the lack of Olympic spirit in Whistler. You lived there for a long time. Could you understand what she was talking about?

A: I think the negative message is easier to put out than the positive one, especially in the media. The voices of the anti-Olympic people have been heard a lot more. But there is a lot of positive energy from Whistler and its residents.

Q: Let's go back to the issue that put you on the international stage in Nagano - marijuana use. Are you in favour of legalization?

A: I'm not really going to go there right now. I think the media obviously has a big opportunity to corner me as a one-issue guy, but I don't want to be that guy. What I see myself doing is standing in the middle of the room, and having a clear view of all the issues, including the legalization of marijuana. But that's not going to be the platform that I launch my campaign from whatsoever. It's an important issue, and I look forward to grappling with it in the future.

Q: There's another inevitable question - do you still use marijuana?

A: I don't really think supporting it one way or the other, at this point, is something I'm interested in doing. Quite frankly, the numbers suggest that one way or the other I'd be letting down half of my constituents.

Q: But that question is going to keep coming up.

A: When the time comes, I'll address it. I just don't think now is the right time. My message will basically be to keep kids off of alcohol, tobacco and drugs.

Q: That's what you hope to teach your newborn son?

A: Absolutely.

Q: Last question. What's your campaign theme song going to be?

A: I like the Bob Marley song Get Up, Stand Up. There's a lot of positive messages in Bob Marley's music, about getting young people involved in the political process. I think that song in particular will resonate.

Maclean's November 16, 2009