Friday, February 13, 1998
Happy ending to sad ordeal
The cellular phone rang sometime into the fifth hour of the police interrogation. Ross Rebagliati smiled for a brief instant, ran his fingers over the gold medal that was hidden his pocket, the medal that was again his, and then went back to the questions.
Questions about his drug use. Questions about his life.
He was sitting in an investigation room on the second floor of the Nagano Police Department when he heard the news. There were six different officers asking him questions, asking the same questions differently, over and over again. He couldn't take a moment to celebrate, to whoop, to pump his fist, to say how stoked he felt. He was again the gold medal champion.
And no one around seemed to care.
Imagine what these 96 hours were like for Ross Rebagliati, who a week was just another pretty face in the hidden world of snowboarding. Then he won a gold medal. Then he got disqualified. Then he spoke on his own behalf in the appeals process. Then he was asked to turn himself in to the Nagano police.
"The only thing I wanted to do was go home,'' an exhausted Rebagliati said when he finally emerged from almost seven hours of police questioning. He was pale when he left the police station late Thursday night. He was almost beaten-looking. Too much had happened in too short a time.
"You can't begin to comprehend what this has been like,'' said Brian Wakelin, the Canadian chef de mission. "I don't know how this young man can stand up right now. I'm just amazed by his composure.''
The police investigation began the instant Rebagliati's positive test for traces of marijuana became public. "They had no choice but to open an investigation,'' said Pierre-Paul Periard, the RCMP officer who doubles here as the security chief for Team Canada. "The drug issue is very sensitive in Japan. This is how their custom works. They had to do something or what would the press have said?''
They asked Rebagliati and other members of the Canadian delegation to come in for questioning. Rebagliati was interrogated in one room. Wakelin was interrogated in another. Even Periard, the police officer was interrogated also.
But that wasn't all.
The Japanese police obtained a warrant to search the hotel room in which Rebagliati was staying. This was part of the long, drawn out process. The search warrant was fine. But when the police arrived, Rebagliati had been moved to another place, his bags taken with him.
This delayed the process further. Eventually, the Canadian delegation produced the suitcases. By then, it was already early evening.
"You have to understand how it works in Japan,'' Periard said. "Illegal drugs come with very high penalties here.
This is an issue they are very sensitive about here. We told our athletes that before we came.
"The whole (police) process is very different than what we're used to. First of all, you do not appear with a lawyer. If you appear with a lawyer, there is an assumption you're guilty. So he was in the room only with the translator from the embassy.
"There were six different officers rotating questioning him. But everything was handled properly and professionally. I had prepared Ross for what would occur. I told him it's going to be a whole day, just be patient. They take their time. Part of the problem was the language barrier. Every question and answer took about 10 minutes when translated back and forth. But he handled it well, he handled it very well.''
Ross Rebagliati isn't asking for any kind of apology, nor is he offering one. He probably made a mistake. The IOC probably made a mistake. The matter has been dealt with properly.
He has won a medal, lost a medal, and spent more time in a police station than any man should. All in the span of too few hours. Last night, he was tired and ready to go home. But with the investigation over and his medal back around his neck instead of hidden in a pocket, he instead spent last night watching Team Canada play its first Olympic hockey game. He is, for the time being, staying at the Olympics.
"I'm so proud of this young man,'' Wakelin said. "He finished up at the police station and he thanked them. Can you imagine that? He wanted to close this case with dignity.''
"It has been an experience I'll never forget,'' said Ross Rebagliati, again a gold medallist, his fingers sliding happily over the prize around his neck. Finally smiling. Finally relaxed.