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Thursday, September 21, 2000

Sorry affair leaves mess to clean up

  Canadian equestrian Eric Lamaze has blazed a trail. Unfortunately, the remains are what is always left when you follow a man and a horse.

 Canadian Olympic Association officials made final yesterday what most observers considered a virtual certainty, drumming the 32-year-old Schomberg resident out of the Olympics for cocaine use. It was Lamaze's second expulsion for cocaine in as many Games.

 While the circumstances of Lamaze's story are bizarre, the COA could fall back on one irrevocable fact. On July 30, Lamaze signed an athlete's agreement that included a pledge he would not use any stimulant. Twenty days later, he took cocaine. Lamaze would later admit to taking the drug at least three more times.

 Lamaze now has been banned three times, once unfairly when he was able to prove the manufacturer of a herbal supplement he had taken had added a banned substance without substantially changing its packaging. After initially banning him, the Canadian Centre for Ethics and Sport changed its mind. But by then Lamaze had relapsed into cocaine use.

 Arbitrator Ed Ratushny cited the stress Lamaze endured when he believed the use of the supplement would unfairly void him for the Games. That, he ruled, is what brought about Lamaze's relapse. Whether Lamaze could compete at Sydney, however, was up to the COA.

 Early yesterday morning, Toronto time, the COA said no.

 "Our reaction was not one of total surprise," equestrian team leader Terrance Millar said. "We are happy a decision has been made. That will help us focus on the job at hand."

 Now the wrangling shifts toward the International Equestrian Federation, which must approve the inclusion of substitute Jonathan Asselin of Calgary. If it does not, the likelihood of Canada taking home a medal is profoundly compromised.

 Even if Asselin rides, Canada has lost its top star in the sport.

 "Eric and his horse (Millcreek Raphael) were probably Canada's best combination," Millar said. "Obviously, this does not help our chances."

 No one escapes blame in what has been an enormously untidy affair. Certainly, the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport's initial decision to suspend Lamaze looks hasty and ill-considered.

 That said, ultimately, Lamaze is responsible for his own behaviour. His relapse is a terrible personal tragedy that dwarfs the harm he has inflicted on his team and his sport. He has made himself a pariah. Clearly, some of his teammates have had enough.

 "It's not the first time but I hope it's the last time that he lets his team and country down," Canadian rider Jay Hayes of Cheltenham, Ont., said.

 The COA had no option but to kick Lamaze off the team. Anything less would have amounted to an endorsement of drug use. And in the end, it had the athlete's signature on which to fall back.

 "Although we are sympathetic to the circumstances involved," COA head Bill Warren said, "it was our opinion and the unanimous opinion of the (Olympic) board, that Eric was in breach of the agreement."

 Lamaze, a Montreal native, is the son of a mother whose life was devastated by drugs. He was raised by his alcoholic grandmother and would often visit his mother in jail.

 Lamaze has said he would have suffered a similar fate were it not for his sport, which allowed him to escape his circumstances at 14 and eventually become a wealthy man.

 In the wake of the Lamaze affair, Canada must now look at how its drug and ethics officials do business. Eric Lamaze must look much deeper still.