Wednesday, February 11, 1998
Rebagliati stripped of gold
In the process, 26-year-old Ross Rebagliati of Whistler, B.C., has been disqualified from the Olympics and ordered to hand over the gold medal he won last Saturday -- the first snowboarding medal ever awarded at the Olympics.
Rebagliati's crime? He tested positive for marijuana.
Canadian Olympic officials immediately appealed the penalty, announced late Tuesday.
"We believe that the penalty in this case should be that of a severe reprimand," said Carol Anne Letheren, chief executive officer of the Canadian Olympic Association.
Rebagliati, clad in a wool sweater and jeans, arrived at a downtown hotel shortly before 7 a.m. EST (9 p.m. Nagano time) for the appeal hearing before an independent tribunal. A decision was expected with 24 hours of the hearing.
His group, aided by at least eight security guards, was forced to push through a multinational phalanx of reporters and cameras, before disappearing up an escalator.
Asked if he had any comment, a dazed-looking Rebagliati said: "Not at the moment."
He was accompanied by Michael Wood, executive director of the Canadian Snowboard federation, Canadian chef de mission Brian Wakelin, COA president Bill Warren and COA executive Mark Lowry.
Rebagliati, a professional snowboarder, became the first athlete to test positive for drugs at the Nagano Games. Officials said they could not recall another Olympic case involving marijuana.
Unlike the anabolic steroid stanozolol used by Toronto sprinter Ben Johnson 10 years ago at the Olympics in Seoul, marijuana is not seen as a performancing-enhancing substance -- especially when you're slashing through 30 to 50 gates on a course with a vertical drop of 290 metres.
"It's not a performance-enhancing drug. If anything, it's a performance-impairing drug," said Richard Garlick, spokesman for the Ottawa-based Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse.
"You certainly wouldn't want to perform some of those snowboard manoeuvres while you're stoned."
It is clear even the International Olympic Committee was torn by what to do over the positive test.
The IOC's medical commission vote in favor of recommending action to the IOC governing body was 13-12. The IOC executive board's subsequent vote on the stiff sanctions was 3-2, with two members abstaining.
The abstentions included IOC vice-president Dick Pound, a Montreal native who refrained from voting citing an apparent conflict of interest. But he made his feelings clear to reporters this morning.
"My opinion is we have been fighting for a number of years against doping and I don't think this is doping," Pound said.
"Opinions were quite split about whether it (the sanction) was appropriate or not," said IOC director general Francois Carrard. "It was not as easy decision to take I can tell you very frankly."
The appeal is being heard by three judges who are members of an independent court of arbitration. The group has been on standby since the '96 Games in Atlanta just for this purpose.
Pound called it "the court of last resort" when it comes to a medal.
IOC officials said no gold medallist since Johnson has been disqualified for drug use.
Asked if the IOC considered the Rebagliati case an equal crime to that of Johnson's, Carrard replied with one word -- "No."
Said Pound: "It's not even close. Ben Johnson was taking anabolic steroids as performance-enhancing substances. This is pot."
Letheren, who was the Canadian team's chef de mission at Seoul, was also asked about comparisons to Johnson.
"I guess it's a bit like deja-vu and a nightmare all over again, but this is such a different case and such a different situation that there is really no comparison in that sense," she said.
The IOC also could have reprimanded Rebagliati but allowed him to keep his medal.
Canadian officials argued that marijuana had no impact on the outcome of the competition, that not all sporting bodies test for marijuana and that the positive test may not even be as a result of direct useage.
"Ross has stated to us that he hasn't used marijuana since April '97," said Letheren. "He claims the small amount found in his system is due to the significant amount of time that Ross spends in an environment where he is exposed to marijuana users."
Rebagliati said the last time he was in close contact with marijuana smokers was Jan. 31 in Whistler, the night before he departed for the Canadian team's staging area in Calgary prior to coming to Japan, Wood told reporters.
The IOC does consider marijuana a prohibited substance. But the International Ski Federation, which governs snowboarding, lists a threshhold of concentration of 15 nanograms per millilitre.
Wood said the snowboarder had been tested twice for drugs, in mid-Septmeber and mid-December '97, prior to coming to the Games.
"There were small traces of marijuana that were below the level set out by FIS (the international ski federation)."
A key issue in the appeal will be how long traces of marijuana remain in the body.
That depends on the amount ingested, the size of the body and other factors said Dr. Andrew Pipe, chairman of the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sports in Ottawa.
"It's highly variable," he told CBC-TV from Ottawa. "I think one can say certainly that if the last time that the athlete used marijuana was in April, that the amount that was found in the urine the day he was tested on the 8th bears no resemblance to ingestion in April. It just wouldn't be there."
Rebagliati, whose electric smile was splashed across the country after his win, was described as "very devastated" at the turn of events.
While the IOC said there was no evidence Rebagliati had used drugs in Japan and the Canadian denied using marijuana since April, Nagano police said they wanted to interview the snowboarder.
"We are going to question the athlete about marijuana because possession of the drug is illegal in Japan," a police spokesman said.
Only four positive drug tests have ever been recorded at the Winter Olympics -- two at Innsbruck in 1976, one in Sarajevo in 1984 and one in Calgary in 1988.
Whatever happens to the appeal, this positive test only adds to the image of the snowboarders as alternative Olympians, renegades from the X-Games who play by their own rules.
"This will undoubtedly be tough for the sport," said Letheren.
But there was support for Rebagliati in his home town.
"I think all of Canada is disappointed," said Paul Blunden, a Whistler resident who knows the Olympian. "He has tested passively for something that's not a performance-enhancing drug. He's done nothing wrong."