Wednesday, February 11, 1998
Deja vu all over again for Canada?TORONTO (AP) -- Ten years after the Ben Johnson scandal, the Nagano Games were supposed to be Canada's best Olympics ever.
But dismay replaced pride when news broke that the country's new snowboarding hero faced losing his gold medal after drug tests turned up traces of marijuana in his system.
"It's a bit like deja vu and a nightmare all over again," said Canadian Olympic Association chief Carol Anne Letheran.
But if Canadians felt betrayed by Johnson, they rallied behind snowboarder Ross Rebagliati.
"No one's angry or embarrassed," said John Wells, editor of the twice-weekly newspaper in Rebagliati's hometown of Whistler, British Columbia. "If anything, they're quite protective of Ross."
Rebagliati was a front-page national hero Monday after winning the first-ever Olympic snowboarding event. He was back on the front pages Wednesday, and the focus of virtually every TV and radio newscast as Canadians tried to absorb the bad news.
"Gold medal gone to pot?" blared the tabloid headline on the Toronto Sun.
Even at Parliament in Ottawa, the debacle was topic No. 1.
Opposition leader Preston Manning, whose right-wing Reform Party has a tough anti-drug stance, took a pro-Rebagliati position.
"We shouldn't give up that medal without a fight," he said.
Heritage Minister Sheila Copps, whose portfolio includes the Olympic program, declined comment pending the outcome of a Canadian appeal of the disqualification.
Should the appeal fail, Rebagliati would join Johnson as the only Olympians to lose gold medals because of drug tests. Johnson was stripped of his medal and 100-meter world record in 1988 in Seoul for using the anabolic steroid stanozolol.
Rebagliati told Canadian officials he hadn't used marijuana since April 1997, but was in close contact with marijuana smokers Jan. 31 in Whistler before he left for Nagano.
Many Canadians were outraged that Rebagliati faced the same penalty as Johnson even though marijuana, unlike steroids, is not considered a drug that improves performance.
"Pot doesn't affect your performance -- it's like alcohol," said Alex Taylor, editor of a Calgary snowboard magazine. "If he had tested positive for drinking, no one would say anything."
In Whistler, Canada's trendiest ski resort town, Rebagliati's friends said they still planned a big welcome home party next week.
"My plan is to go ahead with everything, regardless," said party organizer Graham Turner. "Ross has still got the gold to everyone in Whistler. He just might not be on the cover of the Wheaties box."
Rebagliati and Johnson are not the only top Canadian athletes ensnared by drug tests.
Olympic rower Silken Laumann, who was eventually exonerated, lost her gold medal at the 1995 Pan American Games after using an over-the-counter decongestant which contained a banned stimulant.
Four Canadian weightlifters selected for the Seoul Olympics were disqualified. They went so far as to try duping drug testers by inserting another person's urine into their bladders.
Two Canadian weightlifters were disqualified at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics for steroid use.
Heading into the Nagano Games, Canadians were hoping for their biggest medal haul ever at a Winter Olympics, up from 13 in Norway four years ago.
But problems arose almost as soon as the team arrived in Japan, when French-speaking athletes from Quebec felt slighted by the almost exclusive use of English at an official welcoming reception. Ken Warren, president of the Canadian Olympic Association, felt compelled to apologize after the gaffe created a furor in Quebec.