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    Friday, February 13, 1998

    A day of firsts for a Golden Boy

     NAGANO -- On the brand-new Olympic accreditation card Ross Rebagliati was issued yesterday morning, in the lower corner of a slightly fuzzy picture of this remarkable and beautiful young Canadian, you can see that he is holding up his gold medal.
     It is another first for the 26-year-old from Whistler, B.C., in a 36-hour whirlwind that has been full of them: The first Olympic accreditation photo with the athlete holding his medal; the first winner of the first Olympic medal for snowboarding at the sport's first-ever appearance in an Olympics; the first athlete at the Nagano Games to be stripped of his medal, and finally, giddily, the first one to get it back.
     That is absolutely the right outcome, too, because this kid is a champion. They don't make them any better.
     Rebagliati has come through an ordeal that would have flattened almost anyone else with grace, sterling manners, and, most critically, his sense of himself absolutely intact.
     The Canadian Olympic Association would have loved for him, in his gratitude at getting to keep his medal, to have turned himself inside out and metamorphosed from an alleged pothead into an anti-soft-drug poster child. COA boss Carol Anne Letheren had made this clear hours earlier, when she talked about how much Rebagliati had learned from his trial by fire.
     He did not allow this.
     No matter how many different ways he was asked it by the world's media, his only advice for the children of the planet was that they should weigh their decisions carefully. "My message to the kids is that you have to live with the things you do, and that there are consequences." We all make good decisions and lousy ones, he said, and the good news is, "We never stop learning."
     In his press conference this morning, reporters drove the education bandwagon past him a dozen times, all but begging him to leap upon it, but Rebagliati would have none of it.
     Yes, he said, he would be making changes to his lifestyle, but he was not about to suggest that anyone else should do the same thing. He was never a big-time pot smoker, he said. Up until last April, when he stopped using completely, he smoked it occasionally, but "it wasn't something that ruled any part of my life. It was a social activity, that's all." But he was not now going to preach to anyone else and he wasn't going to talk about the evils of weed.
     "You can be as educated as you want," he said briskly. He gave an illustration. "Everyone knows you're supposed to wear a condom, and it doesn't always happen." In the lingo of Don Cherry, all you kids out there, Ross Rebagliati says -- make whatever choices you want, but prepared to pay the piper. It's as good a life lesson as there is.
     What else did this gamin from the West Coast -- and he is a bit of a sprite, blond and sun-browned like a child on a beach, with a Julius Caesar haircut and calm, intelligent eyes -- have to offer the kiddies of the earth?
     Well, how about this: Stick with those what brung you.
     Be loyal to your friends, because they are in the end your salvation. Ross Rebagliati's friends, if all is as he says and I verily believe it is, inadvertently very nearly cost him his place in Olympic history and bought him one in the athletic hall of shame, the House of Ben. Their use of marijuana, most riskily for Rebagliati at a going-away party for him earlier this month, may have exposed him to enough dope that it was still there to be found in his urine after his race last Sunday.
     But Rebagliati said while he will make some changes to his life, "Unfortunately, I'm not going to change my friends and I don't care what you (the media) think about that." He smiled as he said it but there was iron there; you wouldn't want to cross him. Would he tell his friends not to smoke weed any more in his presence? Rebagliati said with an elfin grin, "I may have to wear a gas mask (around them)..." Then more seriously, he added, "I don't think I'll have to tell them (not to smoke). I wouldn't be surprised if they refrained from it."
     How about this one as a lesson: Don't s--- in your own backyard.
     Why did he live in Whistler? Why is there so much dope there? Why is the dope so strong? "I just happen to live where it (marijuana) is strong," he said. "The potency of alcohol is also different, depending on what you buy." There came one more try: Ross, we thought you were from British Columbia, not Colombia? Rebagliati did not smile. "We all know," he said, "what Colombia is famous for, and it's not marijuana."
     What a composed, smart, self-aware young man he is. I am not the only one who thinks so. Canadian chef de mission Brian Wakelin, who spent seven hours with him yesterday "in jail" as Wakelin calls it, closer to the truth than he could ever have imagined though the two were actually in separate interrogation rooms, raves about Rebagliati and is clearly delighted to have got to know him. It was Wakelin, himself a sweet man, who decided not to retrieve the medal from Rebagliati and who told him he could hang on to it until the last possible moment. Rebagliati kept it in his pocket, close to him, like a talisman.
     In all of this, throughout the rollercoaster that took Rebagliati from the best moment of his life to the worst and back again, in all the hours of waiting, the time at the Japanese police station, the interminable formalities that are the way of the world in this polite but rule-bound country, the only time Brian Wakelin saw Rebagliati crumple was when they left the police station early yesterday morning.
     Rebagliati knew then he had won his appeal. In the car, he borrowed Wakelin's cell phone and phoned his grandma, Sylvia, and then he cried.
     When they got to the athletes' village, and got Ross his new accreditation card, Wakelin and Rebagliati, drained and exhausted, stopped in at the cafeteria for a bite to eat. The Canadian hockey team was there, and waiting, and when they saw this sweet blond boy, they rose to their feet as one. Metaphorically, the country should do the same.