Thursday, February 12, 1998
'Boarder gets medal back
Beleagured Canadian snowboarder Ross Rebagliati, who won his sport's first-ever Olympic gold medal and then lost it within a matter of days after testing positive for marijuana, got a last-minute reprieve early this morning from the Court of Adjudication for Sport (CAS).
But his ordeal may not be over yet. Rebagliati was still being questioned by Japanese police when word of the CAS decision came through.
Accompanied by Canadian team officials and a representative from the Canadian embassy to Japan, Rebagliati was at the station outside Nagano for more than two hours.
After a special hearing convened last night at the Kokusai Hotel in downtown Nagano, a three-referee panel today decided the 26-year-old Rebagliati should be reprimanded for the positive test, but allowed to keep the medal he won last Sunday.
Rebagliati had, in the words of a fellow skateboarder, been "put through the emotional meat grinder" because that group of elderly freeloaders known as the International Olympic Committee, whose doddering members wouldn't grasp any of the colloquial meanings of the word "joint," decided to use an elephant gun to kill a flea.
Rebagliati didn't use anabolic steriods. He didn't use human growth hormone. He didn't try blood doping or EPO, which boosts the ability of your blood to carry more oxygen. He wasn't using stimulants.
The poor benighted innocent, like many other refugees from the snowboarding world new to the mainstream, arrived here with a minute quantity of the active ingredient of marijuana in his urine.
A former self-admitted weed smoker himself, who quit last spring as the Olympics drew close and he had to choose between his two favorite pasttimes (it was, you might say, a moment of truth, literally when he had to s--- or get off the pot), Rebagliati, probably as a function of merely breathing the air in Whistler, where he lives and where the marijuana is the most potent in the world, still had enough of the drug in his system that it showed up in the test barely.
That doesn't mean he was lying about having quit; his presence at a going-away party held in his honor earlier this month might well account for it.
The jury is still out on the effects of passive pot smoking, but given the kind of marijuana sold in Vancouver and area (according to Canadian expert Dr. Andrew Pipe, the stuff sold in the 1980s and on which the little research there is was carried out had an active ingredient of 2.5%; the weed now being sold has a concentration of between 22 and 30%) and the fact the air at Rebagliati's goodbye party was thick with it, it's a possibility.
And so what?
Marijuana, as Dick Pound, Canada's member on the IOC and one of the few who is young enough that he might actually have some visceral understanding of all this says, is not on the banned list, is not a prohibited substance. The IOC doesn't routinely test for it, though it may, if requested by the particular sport and as the skiing federation demanded in Nagano. That's the vague language of the rule in question. As Rob Stevens, a friend of Rebagliati and member of the 1992 Canadian snowboard team, says, "You don't put someone through an emotional meatgrinder on a 'may' and a 'maybe'."
Good Lord, as anyone who has ever smoked the stuff, or had a hash brownie or two, knows, the notion of weed as an aid to performance of any sort (athletic, sexual, intellectual, conversational) is pretty much ludicrous; marijuana's most common effects, in my own not insubstantial experience, are to induce a mellow languor and/or a raging craving for junk food.
As Pound said with an impatient shrug when someone asked if the Rebagliati case was akin to the Ben Johnson steroid scandal almost a decade ago, "Ben Johnson used anabolic steriods as a performance-enhancing drug.
"This is pot." He didn't add, "for God's sake," but he might as well have.
Pound, as one of the eight-member IOC executive board which made this anachronistic decision, made his own sensible view known, but withdrew from the actual voting because of the potential for an apparent conflict of interest. Some seasoned IOC observers say Pound should have swallowed his principles and "saved the kid" by doing what countless other IOC executives have done before him when their country's athletes found themselves in trouble.
"My opinion is what we are fighting against is doping in sport," Pound concluded. "I don't think this (marijuana) is doping...I don't think you take away an athlete's medal unless he or she has doped."
There's another school of thought on this one, that if Rebagliati was so stupid as to have used the drug himself recently or exposed himself to secondhand smoke, he deserves his fate and/or that the IOC must be seen to be sending out a message to the young people of the world that drugs are bad.
But even if you subscribe to this view, no less an august person than Prince Alexandre de Merode, the head of the IOC medical commission and the man whose recommendation that Rebagliati be issued a warning was overturned, put that in perpective. "For me," he said, "marijuana is not doping, it's a problem of education." If the IOC, in other words, wanted to send out an anti-drug message to the kids, there are better ways to do it than by whacking Ross Rebagliati.
The law and morality of marijuana-smoking are in flux all over the world. What's legal in Holland is illegal-but-seriously punished in Japan and illegal-but-tolerated (and in epileptic Terry Parker's case, court-condoned) in Canada. A 26-year-old snowboarder should never have been made to carry the can for the shifting mores of a confused planet.