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?