Wednesday, February 11, 1998
D-Day Thursday for Rebagliati
His fate is in the hands of a three-member IOC arbitration panel which, early this morning, heard a 2 1/2-hour appeal from Rebagliati and the Canadian Olympic Association. The IOC promised to render a decision by 3:15 am (EST) Thursday.
Carol Ann Letheren, chief executive officer of the COA, said all the participants in the meeting were sworn to secrecy about the discussions. She would not even confirm who particpated.
Rebagliati, however, did have an opportunity to make a personal petition to the panel. When he arrived at the hotel in which the meeting took place, he looked tired and scared as he was mobbed by the media. He was apparently whisked out a back way after his presentation.
The 26-year-old from Whistler, B.C. tested positive for cannabis after winning the gold medal last Saturday in snowboard giant slalom. Despite showing just minute traces of cannabis, Rebagliati was immediately disqualified by the International Olympic Committee and ordered to return his medal.
Rebagliati has admitted to past marijuana use, but insisted to COA officials that he has been clean for 10 months. Basically, he attributes the positive test to inhaling the second-hand marijuana smoke of his friends.
The COA is not saying if it buys that argument. It has come to Rebagliati's defence because it believes the punishment -- the heartache and humiliation of losing an Olympic gold medal -- is disproportionate to this offence.
While not condoning the use of marijuana, the COA told the panel that an appropriate penalty for Rebagliati would be a severe reprimand.
That position was supported by Prince Alexandre de Merode, head of the IOC medical commission.
"For me, marijuana is not a matter of doping, it is a matter of education," he said as he left the meeting.
Not only was the amount of marijuana in Rebagliati's system barely above the limit established by snowboarding's governing body, the International Ski Federation (FIS), but marijuana is not a performance enhancing drug. In other words, no one is accusing Rebagliati of cheating. Poor judgment, yes. Stupidity, maybe. But not cheating.
The challenge before the COA was not to persuade the arbitration panel that Rebagliati is a non-user of marijuana -- that is irrelevant -- but to convincingly argue that the traces of dope in Rebagliati's sample would not have affected his performance.
Also, the COA argued that the IOC's doping rules are inconsistent. Doping guidelines for Olympic sports are set by the individual sports federations. At the Olympics, the IOC enforces those guidelines.
But some sports take a more lenient view of "social drugs" like marijuana. Even skiing's own rules state that, although marijuana is prohibited, severe penalties are not mandatory but "may" be imposed. The COA contends it is unjust that athletes, regardless of their sport, are not all treated the same.
It's not clear if the COA also invoked the cultural argument. If they had, it would have gone something like this: telling a snowboarder he can't smoke dope is like telling a curler he can't drink beer. The two have traditionally gone hand in hand.
In Rebagliati's case, Caral Ann Letheren called this spending a "significant amount of time in an environment that exposes him to marijuana users." Rebagliati was accompanied to the meeting by Michael Wood, president of the Canadian Snowboard Federation. He said Rebagliati was "devastated" by the positive test.
The vote to disqualilfy Rebagliati a was a 3-2 decision by the IOC executive board. There were two abstentions. One of the abstentions was by Canadian IOC rep Richard Pound, who supports Rebagliati but, in keeping with IOC policy, does not vote on matters related to issues from his own country. "It was not as easy decision to take I can tell you very frankly," said IOC director general Francois Carrard.
Rebagliati admitted to being in close contact with marijuana users on Jan. 31, before the team left for Nagano. He was tested for drugs in Septmeber and December 1997 and, said Wood, minute traces of marijuana were found. But the levels were below the limit outlined by the FIS so no action was taken.