It's the coolest thing on the piste at any rate. Alister Morgan reports on an Olympic phenomenon

FIRST it was someone getting caught using marijuana. Next came the news that another participant had wrecked his hotel room. Twenty years ago, you'd have assumed this was the behaviour of the members of a rock band. Today these are the antics of sportsmen. But not just any sportsmen - the exponents of the hippest winter game around - snowboarding.

The sport achieved notoriety last week when the Canadian snowboarder, Ross Rebagliati, was stripped of his gold medal at the Winter Olympics in Nagano, after testing positive for marijuana. A successful appeal meant he was allowed to keep his medal, but not before rival Austrian boarder, Martin "The Terminator" Freinademetz was expelled from the Olympic village. His Olympic accreditation was withdrawn after a party at his hotel, when equipment was damaged and there were reports that a snowmobile had gone missing.

"We had a party, we had fun, something got broken, it's not cool, but it happened ..." Freinademetz told reporters on Thursday.

These antics did nothing to deter the crowds at Nagano, with more than 10,000 watching the sport's inaugural appearance.

Snowboarding is far more than a spectator sport, however. Estimates suggest snowboarders will outnumber skiers within the next 10 years. It's an extraordinary achievement for a sport which did not exist 30 years ago and in the Eighties was still banned from many ski resorts. Today, with an estimated 5 million converts around the globe (60,000 from the UK), it is increasingly challenging the traditional Alpine supremacy of skiing.

So what had made this sport the coolest activity on snow, and the hottest thing at the Winter Olympics? Sure, its followers love its adrenaline- inducing qualities, but the whole lifestyle that goes with it, from the camaraderie of the snowboarders to the clothes, are what have attracted young people to the peaks.

At first glance, snowboarding and skiing do not appear too dissimilar, but crucially, snowboarding derives from surfing and skateboarding - not skiing.

Like surfers, snowboarders are usually younger, (23 on average) and live a tribal existence, travelling from country to country in search of the best snow.

Snowboarding is broken down into four categories: Duel Giant Slalom; Boardercross (similar to a motor-cross track with snow); Big Air & Style (competitors launch themselves off a snow ramps and perform acrobatics in mid-air); and the Halfpipe (inspired by skateboarding, in which the competitor gathers speed and rides bank to bank performing tricks).

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) endorsed two disciplines, but many boarders reject the notion of a sport altogether. To them snowboarding is a "lifestyle".

21-year-old Melanie Leando is the current Women's Halfpipe champion and is also a convert from skiing. "I enjoy skiing, but snowboarding is so much more unrestricted." she says. "You don't have any poles, just a great feeling of community among snowboarders, and I just love being in the mountains. It's just you and the mountain; there's nothing else quite like it."

Rebagliati's positive test for marijuana will not have surprised anyone connected with snowboarding. Olympic snowboarders are no more likely to take drugs than any other athlete, but the sport is inherently social. When participants habitually meet at the end of the day they are just as likely to drink, and experiment with drugs, as any other group of young people.

The advent of snowboarding has essentially brought a clash of cultures between two generations (Freinademetz used to compete in a gorilla suit. He gave that up but still retains his bleached blonde hair, goatee and eyebrows). As recently as five years ago many ski resorts banned boarders from their slopes, but snowboarding's ability to attract big money has altered perceptions.

Sponsors are falling over themselves to be associated with a growing sport whose protagonists are young, vibrant and highly marketable. While the minimum equipment (exclusive of clothing) required for snowboarding includes a snowboard, boots and bindings which can costs between pounds 500 and pounds 1,500, countless urban youths, who will never see the top of a mountain are spending hundreds of pounds of snowboarding jackets, trainers, sunglasses and other bit and pieces.

So while TV viewers around the world marvel at the creativity of the Olympic sport, and debate the ethical implications of Rebagliati's case, businessmen are merely rubbing their hands.