Canadian snowboarder's gold medal restored by court

By Thomas O'Toole Scripps Howard News Service Published:

NAGANO, Japan _ When Ross Rebagliati received word Thursday morning that a decision to take away his Olympic gold medal because of drugs had been overturned on appeal, the Canadian snowboarder reached into his pocket, pulled out the medal and put it back around his neck.

Then he continued answering questions from Japanese police about possible marijuana use.

It was a bizarre ending to a bizarre 24 hours as snowboarding made a bizarre debut at the Winter Games.

"He's a remarkable young man in terms of his stamina," said Carol Anne Letheren, chief executive officer of the Canadian Olympic Association. "He has been under phenomenal pressure."

That pressure stayed on into Wednesday evening in Nagano as police continued to question him. Letheren said the interview was voluntary and emphasized Rebagliati was not in any kind of custody. She said marijuana use or possession is considered a very serious crime here and that when Rebagliati tested positive for it after winning the snowboard giant slalom on Sunday, the authorities acted predictably.

"It's a formality, a requirement they talk to Ross about this," said Letheren. "They do take a fair amount of time. At this point, no one is alarmed at the length of time."

Rebagliati's saga began Wednesday when the International Olympic Committee announced he had tested positive for marijuana and that this gold medal would be taken away. Canada immediately appealed to the Court of Arbitration for Sport, which handles disputes for the IOC.

The 26-year-old Rebagliati said he had not smoked marijuana since last April and that any traces in his body must have come from second-hand smoke.

Canada based its appeal largely on the inequities of the Olympic drug testing program. Some international federations test for certain substances while others don't. At the Olympics, the IOC _ which does not consider marijuana a banned substance _ goes by whatever the federation does instead of having its own across-the-board policy. Snowboarding's governing body, the International Skiing Federation, does test for marijuana.

Rebagliati was screened for marijuana only because the IOC is doing a survey on how prevalent the drug is in sports, according to Letheren.

Canada also argued that marijuana was not a performance-enhancing drug and thus could not have affected the outcome of the competition. In addition, Canada suggested that even the IOC was divided on the drug issue because the two committees which voted to ban him originally did so in decisions decided by just one vote.

According to a statement by the arbitration tribunal, there was no legal grounds for taking the medal away in the first place; the tribunal pointed to the vagueness of the drug-testing program among different bodies and said it "cannot invent prohibitions or sanctions where none appear."

The IOC did not challenge Rebagliati's statement that he did not smoke marijuana himself or medical evidence that the small quantities in his body were consistent with second-hand smoke, according to the tribunal. The tribunal, while being careful to say it did not condone the use of marijuana, cleared Rebagliati with no sanctions, not even a reprimand.

Rebagliati had become the first feel-good story of the Games when he dedicated his gold medal to a friend named "Lumpy," who died recently in an avalanche. He also called his achievement a dream come true and even said he knew snowboarding had become a legitimate sport when drug testing was introduced.

He is expected to address the media Friday morning in Nagano.

Letheren said if any good is to come out of this is might be the IOC standardize its position on marijuana.

"There's absolutely a requirement here for this to receive a real clarification," said Letheren. "There is a mixed message here."

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