Winter Olympics: Culture clash on the slopes

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The Independent Online
WHETHER or not Ross Rebagliati's status as snowboarding's first Olympic champion has gone up in a puff of smoke, many observers feel the International Olympic Committee has only itself to blame following the Canadian's positive test for marijuana.

The Olympic movement has hastened to welcome a sport with a widely acknowledged reputation for recreational drug-taking, and the reaction from those who are familiar with the snowboarding ethos: what did you expect?

Rebagliati was due to learn early today if he was to become the first Canadian to be stripped of an Olympic gold medal since Ben Johnson in 1988.

The Court of Arbitration for Sports has been deliberating on whether the 22-year-old from Whistler, near Vancouver, should prevail in his appeal to remain as gold medallist. Francois Carrard, the director general of the IOC, reported a finding of 17.8 nanograms per millilitre of metabolised marijuana in the sample Rebagliati gave after Sunday's slalom final - above the limit of 15 nanograms set by the international federation, the FIS.

Carrard flatly denied, however, that the case was similar to that of Johnson - even though a gold medal was in question - saying it had not been an easy decision to take.

The IOC voting reflected that. The medical board was only 13-12 in favour of recommending a sanction to the IOC executive board, which upheld the decision 3-2 with two abstentions.

Canada's chef de mission, Carol Anne Letheren, who had to ask Ben Johnson to return his Olympic 100 metres medal at the Seoul Olympics 10 years ago following a positive steroid finding, said Rebagliati was devastated by the announcement and stressed that the drug had not been performance- enhancing.

"There is no doubt a social issue surrounding this," Letheren said. "Could or should the IOC be a social police force?"

She read a statement from Rebagliati in which he denied using marijuana since April last year, and maintained that he may have been a victim of passive smoking during a going-away party held in his honour on 31 January.

Letheren added: "Ross says he lives in an environment in which he is exposed to marijuana."

The statement caused a certain amount of guffawing among the attendant press.

What caused a degree of mystification, however, was a subsequent statement from the Canadian Olympic Association that Rebagliati had shown small traces of marijuana in tests taken in September and December, even though both results had been too negligible to show up as positive.

The ethos of snowboarding has evolved directly out of the longer established sport whence it sprang - surfing.

The man credited with starting snowboarding in 1965, Sherman Poppen, came up with the idea to enable his children to "surf" over the snow near their home in Michigan. He screwed together a pair of skis, which took on the name of a Snurfer.

As snowboarding has grown in popularity it has mirrored surfing in its expression of individualism, and its undertones of recreational drug use.

The latter, unsurprisingly, is not explicitly referred to by any of those who have come to compete in these Winter Olympics. But their biographical details say much about the sport's zeitgeist.

Most of the competitors are under 25, with some as young as 18. Surfing and skateboarding feature heavily among listed hobbies, as do mountain biking, interneting, playing video games and sky diving.

Bertrand Denervaud, of Switzerland, known in snowboarding circles as Berti, declares: "A perfect day for me is surfing in the morning and playing golf with my friends in the afternoon."

This is a sport full of nicknames - "Joker", "Fuzzy", "Babs", "The Terminator". Musical tastes are for punk, hip-hop, and Reggae funk. This is Generation X - and no one owns up to anything remotely uncool.

The quintessential snowboarding activity - an extended sequence of flips, twists and turns in a U-shaped channel of snow known as the half-pipe - takes place at Kanbayashi Snowboard Park today.

Since 1990, the number of snowboarders in the United States has grown to an estimated 4.5 million, making it the fastest growing sport in that country. That kind of popularity, which is reflected also in Europe, guarantees television ratings and has proved an irresistible lure to the IOC.

"If anyone says the Olympics isn't about ratings, they're lying," said Todd Richards, one of the US snowboarders here.

Richards is one of many snowboarders who have expressed grave reservations about a sport whose whole essence is alternative becoming subsumed into the Olympic movement. That has always been the domain of the skiers who have spent the last 10 to 15 years vainly shaking their fists at the raggedy upstarts invading their slopes.

There are still a number of European venues where snowboarders are not welcome; indeed, they are still officially banned from the very slopes on which they are contesting the Olympics.

The man commonly acknowledged as the world's foremost snowboarder, the 23-year-old Norwegian Terje Haakonsen (aka "Legend") boycotted the Winter Olympics in protest at the nature of the IOC. "There is a lot about these Games that is not my cup of tea," he told an Oslo paper.

And there are many who regard the latest embarrassing incident as little more than a predictable storm in a teacup.