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Monday, 14 January, 2002, 11:32 GMT

Boarder skirmish in Japan

After first appearing in the mid-1960s, snowboarding made its Olympic debut in the 1998 Games in Nagano, Japan.

The sport had grown rapidly over the preceding 30 years and had developed its own culture, one that had little to do with the traditional ideals of the Olympic movement.

With a laid-back image and hip terminology it had more in common with the street than the committee room.

And, when it was announced that a gold medallist had been disqualified after testing positive for cannabis, there was little surprise when it turned out to be a snowboarder.

"A lot of top snowboarders are not interested in competing"
British ski official
Fiona McNeilly

The man stripped of his medal was Canadian Ross Rebagliati.

He was disqualified when trace levels of THC, a chemical component of marijuana, were discovered in a sample.

However, a day later the International Olympic Committee backtracked on its decision and a mightily-relieved Rebagliati was allowed to keep his medal.

Afterwards Rebagliati claimed that he had not smoked cannabis since April 1997 and that he had passively inhaled the drug at a party.

Competitive snowboarding grew out of a pastime that was as much a way of life for its early fans as a sport.

By the 1970s it was attracting surfers and skateboarders onto the slopes of Europe and North America.

As more people discovered the joys of surfing on snow, competitions began to spring up.

The first competitive events were held during the 1980s and in 1994 the International Skiing Federation officially sanctioned the sport.

A lot of top boarders were against the idea of it becoming a competitive sport.

But many were all for it and were delighted when it was welcomed into the Olympics.

Fiona McNeilly, operations director for the British Ski and Snowboard Federation, says that the sport's acceptance into the Olympic fold had a divisive impact.

"The decision probably had more affect on the sport itself rather than the Olympics.

"It was very free-spirited. I wouldn't like to say that it completely split the sport in two, but there are two different camps.

"A lot of top snowboarders are not interested in competing, but there is another group that decided to follow the Olympic route."

Just as in Nagano there will be two disciplines, for men and women, in Salt Lake City.

The parallel slalom, where the competitors race side-by-side, replaces the conventional slalom used in Nagano, while the half-pipe freestyle remains the same.

Rebagliati won the men's slalom in 1998, with Gian Simmen taking the men's freestyle event.

Selling out

Karine Ruby and Nicola Thost were the women's champions.

The events were a big success, but Olympic snowboarders remain in a peculiar limbo.

They will still be criticised for selling out by the romantics who think competition is against all snowboarding stands for.

But, because of Rebagliati's positive test, they will continue to be seen as edgy and dangerous by the traditionalists in the Olympic movement.

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