Talk about almost blowing it.
Two United States professional snowboarders in Wanaka for this week’s Burton NZ Open have escaped conviction on charges of possessing what police described at the time as “not an insignificant amount” of cannabis.
The two men – one a 26-year-old Winter Olympics medallist and the other a 21-year-old 2010 Winter Olympics hopeful – were caught in the elder rider’s van in Wanaka on August 1.
By Sunday the pair – both competing at Cardona this week – successfully completed diversion, a let-off for first-time offenders facing minor charges.
Internet blogs are rife with speculation on how the brush with the law will affect their careers.
“On one side it’s illegal, but they are snowboarders and it isn’t like this hurts their image,” writes one blogger.
Another guffaws: “Snowboarders using pot … I’m shocked! Who would have guessed?”
And sympathetic: “Too bad [the van] doesn’t have a better stash spot built in.”
Queenstown police sergeant Chris Blackford, who dealt with the pair, is in no mood for jokes.
“They realised that the consequences of their behaviour could have a huge impact on their future ability to travel[but] I don’t think it quite sunk in with them until I gave them a wind-up.
“I told them not to put that crap in their lungs.”
But such is the counter-culture of snowboarding, often associated with drugs, misbehaviour and laid-back living.
Snowboarding’s first Olympic gold medallist, Canadian Ross Rebagliati, controversially tested positive for marijuana at the 1998 Nagano Games in Japan.
The drug incident two weeks ago comes hard on the heels of a 13-year-old Wanaka snowboarder nearly drinking himself to death by sculling an allegedly stolen bottle of 35 per cent proof Jagermeister during a junior winter high-performance programme in June.
Even Queenstown police have said Operation Dove, aimed at busting party-drug suppliers this winter, targets dealers flocking for fat profits during the snow season.
This tarnished image is something that many snowboarders are keen to shake off – skiers can also embody the perceived counter-culture, they say.
Constable Sean Drader says Queenstown’s crime spike during the winter “dishonesty period” is typified more by 18 to 20-year-old males arriving in town with no money yet looking for a good time.
“We get lots of disorder, lots of violence, cannabis peaks, drink-driving peaks, and a lot of that is because of the sort of person who comes here for the snow.
“[But] when you look at the number of people that get arrested each year, the number of people that are snowboarders within that is very, very small.”
The laidback lifestyle is par for the course, former hardcore snowboarder Grant Ruthven of Dunedin says.
“A lot of these people that do back-to-back winters do a lot of drinking so I certainly think it takes a toll,” Ruthven says. He’s worked as a liftie in Queenstown and Canada.
“You’re living the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle. I’d recommend doing it if you want to have a bit of fun for a couple of years and follow the winter.”
New Zealand Snowboard Union trustee and former pro rider Robett Hollis says snowboarders shouldn’t all be tarred with the same brush.
“It’s a shame that a select few can bring a bad spotlight onto a sport that has so many riders working 110 per cent to accomplish their goals and dreams.
“These committed professionals dedicate countless hours of training and riding to be the best they can be and it’s unfortunate that some decide to make bad decisions which bring an unfair judgement to the sport.”
Still, snowboarding’s come a long way since the early 1980s when it was actually banned from many ski resorts and the rifts between skiers and riders punctuated winters.
Now boarding is mainstream – and according to Kiwi men’s alpine ski racing team coach Nils Coberger, the two sports are closer than ever.
“The style, clothing, it’s all become very similar. Half the time you see someone with just their pants and jacket and helmet and you don’t know if they’re a skier or a snowboarder, whereas back in the day you’d know straight away if someone was a jibber or a skier.”