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Japanese national team suspends 2 snowboarders for using marijuana

Two prominent Japanese snowboarders have been banned indefinitely from international competition by the Ski Association of Japan (SAJ) after it was discovered they used marijuana during a snowboarding tour through the United States in December.

The announcement, which was made Wednesday, didn’t name the two snowboarders as they were minors. The Ski Association of Japan said traces of marijuana were found in the hair follicles of the offending snowboarders.

Though one of the two suspended snowboarders has denied smoking marijuana, the other admitted to using it while at a party in Colorado, where it has been recreationally legal since 2012 for users above the age of 21.

While a teenager smoking weed might not seem like a huge deal to American readers, cannabis is far less culturally accepted in Japan, and the announcement of the suspensions made an extreme impact. The SAJ announced the riders could ultimately be held off the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympic team roster for their positive tests, and their suspensions led to the immediate resignation of the SAJ’s former snowboarding chief, Fumikazu Hagiwara.

“This will not have a good impact on the Rio, Pyeongchang or Tokyo Olympics,” current SAJ director Toshimasa Furukawa told the Japan Times. “If they undergo rehabilitation, there is a chance for them [to compete in Pyeongchang]. But it is impossible to say now whether they have enough time.”

Furukawa also noted that the markedly strict SAJ already felt disgraced at the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics when snowboarder Kazuhiro Kokubo arrived with his hair in dreadlocks dressed in a baggy uniform.

But in the United States, the suspended duo have at least one supporter in snowboarding icon and two-time Olympic gold medalist Shaun White, who took to Instagram to call the snowboarders suspension “harsh.”

A photo posted by Shaun White (@shaunwhite) on Apr 28, 2016 at 11:02am PDT

White wasn’t the only snowboarder sympathetic to their plight: Ross Rebagliati, the first snowboarder to ever win an Olympic gold medal as well as the face of marijuana in competitive snowboarding, also felt for the duo.

“I know that a lot of the Japanese pros don’t live in Japan, they live abroad because they follow the talent and ride where everyone else rides, whether that’s in British Columbia or Colorado,” the 44-year-old Rebagliati told GrindTV. “So they’ve probably been exposed to western and cannabis culture and probably saw how it was working for other snowboarders and decided to do it.”

On top of being the first snowboarder to ever win Olympic gold, Rebagliati was also the first snowboarder to ever be stripped of his gold medal, after he was found to have THC (the active component of marijuana) in his system. While his gold medal was eventually reinstated because THC wasn’t listed on the banned substance list by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) at the time of his victory, WADA added it to the banned substance list shortly thereafter.

Rebagliati (above) has become an advocate for the legalization of marijuana in his days since competitive snowboarding. Photo: Courtesy of Ross Rebagliati

“It’s just unfortunate that the rules are as they are, because there’s no proven reason why marijuana should be against the rules,” Rebagliati said. “The International Olympic Committee just made it against the rules because of me. It’s unfortunate, because it sounds like the kid just got caught having a puff, and it’s too bad that it makes the news like this. In Japan, especially, it will be bad news for him because of their opinions on cannabis over there. He’ll have a lot of issues with moving forward with his life in Japan after this because it’s a big no-no there.”

While Rebagliati currently works on advocating for the legalization of marijuana, he says that the suspension should serve as a warning to any current athletes considering smoking pot.

“Unfortunately, it’s a substance that’s on the list of banned substances,” said Rebagliati. “It’s pretty clear what the rules are in that regard. Athletes should be aware by now that it’s on the list of banned substances. I know if I was going to the Olympics right now I wouldn’t be touching anything banned.”

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Two teenagers on the Japanese national snowboarding team have been suspended indefinitely after testing positive for marijuana.

Drug tests can be a bummer

Shaun White slumps on a couch inside a cavernous chalet rented by one of his corporate sponsors. The millionaire snowboarder appears weary from a party thrown the previous night by another sponsor.

It’s Thursday afternoon and beyond the patio, on Aspen’s Buttermilk Mountain, the Winter X Games have begun.

White, 22, is two days from winning the popular slopestyle competition, and three days from repeating as halfpipe champion.

Deep in his mind, however, are the Winter Olympics, just one year away, and a stepped-up effort by the global drug police that runs counter to snowboarding’s long-cherished lifestyle and culture.

Asked how this might affect him, White pauses and responds, “Um . . . My biggest concern is getting around second-hand smoke,” and laughter fills the room. . . .

The Vancouver Olympics begin Feb. 12, 2010, but the long arm of Olympics law, operating under a retooled global anti-doping code, has been flipping through addresses for months.

Mason Aguirre, 21, recalls the rap on the door of his Mammoth Lakes home by a representative of the United States Anti-Doping Agency during the summer as he slept with his girlfriend.

“I wake up in a daze and have to wrap a towel around me, and I open my door and it’s like a 60-year-old dude,” Aguirre says. “And he’s like, ‘Hi, I’m Paul. I’m with USADA and I’m here to watch you pee in a cup.’ ”

Ellery Hollingsworth, 17, was most recently greeted outside her agent’s Carlsbad residence. She was ushered into the house and into the bathroom, asked to tuck the front of her shirt into her bra and fill a container.

“I was mortified for her,” says Susan Izzo, the agent.

Snowboarding has been an Olympic sport since 1998, and from the start the disconnect between the rigidity of the Olympic movement and a sport clothed in the counter-culture attire of free-spirited youth collided. In fact, the first gold medal ever awarded in snowboarding went to a Canadian shredder who later tested positive for marijuana.

And many snowboarders say the most recent set of drug-testing regulations for aspiring Olympians — in which athletes must provide daily schedules for three-month periods at least 12 months before the start of the Olympics — are an extension of an organization that is simply exerting too much control over their lifestyles. Those schedules must provide precise whereabouts for 60 minutes each day.

To be sure, the drug-testing protocol applies to all potential Olympic athletes, not just snowboarders. But other athletes, like Alpine skiers, are accustomed to being tested regularly because they compete in sanctioned events such as the World Cup and world championships. They’ve also long adhered to rigid training schedules.

Most snowboarders keep loose schedules and compete primarily in endemic events and high-profile contests such as the Winter X Games and the Dew Winter Tour, which concludes this weekend near Lake Tahoe. There is no drug testing at those events. The adjustment, understandably, isn’t going smoothly.

“When I leave Aspen on Monday and I go home, they know that,” Aguirre says. “And that kind of sketches me out.”

If an agent from USADA, the World Anti-Doping Agency or the International Skiing Federation (FIS), visits unannounced during the 60-minute window and the athlete is not present, it counts as a missed test.

Three infractions — any combination of missed tests, failing to submit whereabouts information, or submitting inaccurate or incomplete whereabouts information — could end an athlete’s chances to participate in the Vancouver Olympics.

Previously, out-of-competition testing involved unannounced visits, even during non-Olympic years, for most elite athletes. But if an athlete wasn’t home, he or she would receive a phone call and a meeting was arranged.

The 60-minute rule replaces the phone call. It went into effect Jan. 1 and is universal. All Olympic hopefuls are now on the testing radar screen, which seems reasonable — unless you’re a snowboarder.

None of the top U.S. halfpipe riders compete regularly on the World Cup and only some compete on the FIS-sanctioned Grand Prix circuit, until the brief season immediately preceding an Olympics, when those events serve as qualifiers.

Halfpipe riders choose specific contests deemed most advantageous at a given time. Many do not know where they’ll be next week, much less three months ahead.

Like all athletes, they’re afforded the convenience of texting or phoning in changes to their schedules, on an almost up-to-the-minute basis. But that would require remembering what’s on the schedules they sent in. Some have already received strikes against them and more than a few are concerned about missing a chance at Olympic glory due to mere forgetfulness.

“We’re not at the gym, we’re on the mountain eight hours a day,” says Kelly Clark, the 2002 Olympic halfpipe gold medalist. “It’s very challenging for us because the rules are not adapted to our culture.”

Anti-doping officials maintain revisions in the code were designed to bring about uniform global compliance. Erin Hannah, a USADA spokeswoman, says rules “were carefully developed to strike a fair balance between potential inconveniences and safeguarding the rights of clean athletes worldwide.”

But the most critical among halfpipe riders — and their managers and agents — say the International Olympic Committee also strives to bring snowboarding under tighter control.

“It’s pathetic and it is so IOC,” says Izzo, whose agency represents several top snowboarders. “I could understand this if our athletes were using performance-enhancing drugs that would make them stronger or go higher in the pipe.

“But that’s not our sport, and if you know anything about action sports you know this lifestyle and this culture, and that’s not what these kids are doing on the side.”

A combustible situation

Snowboarders, with their deep-seeded anti-establishment roots, never were comfortable with authority, and veteran shredders surely recall snowboarding’s inauspicious Olympics debut at the 1998 Games at Nagano, Japan.

FIS told the budding International Snowboarding Federation it was taking charge, and Terje Haakonsen, at the time the world’s best snowboarder, called the IOC president a Nazi and snubbed the Olympics.

Canada’s Ross Rebagliati won the first Olympic snowboarding gold medal, then tested positive for marijuana, was stripped of the medal, and later had it restored when a court ruled the Olympics had no clear policy regarding marijuana. He famously claimed to have been a victim of second-hand smoke.

In reality, according to USADA chief executive officer Travis Tygart, the marijuana policy leading to the 2010 Vancouver Games is similar to what it was before the 2006 Turin Olympics. Pot is not tested for out-of-competition, but is prohibited in-competition during FIS-sanctioned events.

If an athlete tests positive for marijuana during a sanctioned competition, the issue comes under review. If two of three elements are met — if pot was determined to have been performance-enhancing, posed a health or safety hazard, or violated the spirit of sport — the athlete could be suspended and miss the Olympics.

“From an anti-doping standpoint, we do not want people using marijuana,” Tygart says. “Even out-of-competition, they need to make a decision that is in their best interest.”

For top halfpipe riders, from the U.S. anyway, an easy resolution is to steer clear of FIS-sanctioned events until the Olympic qualifying process requires attendance, mostly next winter. The X Games and Winter Dew Tour are not FIS-sanctioned and therefore are out-of-competition, so some riders may choose to soar higher than others, so to speak.

Although not all of them seem to realize this. Says Hannah Teter, the 2006 Olympic halfpipe gold medalist, on a perceived marijuana crackdown: “I think it’s really crazy, especially for snowboarders who like to hang out and have fun together.”

For snowboarders, drug testing can be a real bummer ]]>