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    Thursday, February 12, 1998

    Canada's most embarrassing Olympics?

    By DAN RALPH -- Canadian Press
     NAGANO, Japan -- The 1998 Winter Olympics were supposed to be Canada's most successful ever. Instead, they're turning into a string of disputes, slip-ups and disappointments.
     Call them the Embarrassment Games.
     The capper was the stunning announcement by the IOC that it was stripping Canadian snowboarder Ross Rebagliati of his gold medal for testing positive for marijuana.
     Whether the penalty is appropriate is in great dispute -- the Canadian Olympic Association says it's much too harsh and that marijuana is not a performance-enhancing drug.
     But even COA head Carol Anne Letheren admitted the case is a "nightmare."
     Since the Olympic torch was ignited Friday night to officially start the 18th Winter Games, Canada has been in headlines around the world for many of the wrong reasons. Language squabbles, the debate over who should have carried the flag at the opening ceremonies and Rebagliati's drug test have drawn more attention to Canada's Olympians than the team's success at the medal podium.
     It conjures up ugly memories of Ben Johnson, whose positive steroid test at the 1988 Games and subsequent loss of his 100-metre gold forever linked Canadian athletes with drug use.
     That case sparked a host of embarrassing jokes -- the likes of which are popping up again.
     On Wednesday, the Fabulous Sports Babe radio show -- a U.S.-based program that is syndicated around North America -- played a tongue-in-cheek version of O Canada.
     "O Canabis, Your snowboarder inhaled," went the new lyrics.
     The Nagano Olympics started with such promise for Canada.
     Carol Assalian, the Canadian team's director of village operations, opened the Games by boldly predicting Canada would win between 16 and 23 medals, easily surpassing the previous high of 13, set in 1994 in Lillehammer, Norway.
     But Assalian's prognostication came just as the winds of discontent began to swirl around Canada.
     First up was the appointment of freestyle skier Jean-Luc Brassard of Grand-Ille, Que., as Canada's flag bearer.
     It seemed like a logical choice. Brassard, the 1994 Olympic moguls champion, is one of his sport's biggest stars. But the presence of figure skater Elvis Stojko, a three-time world champion, created debate about whether Brassard's appointment was politically motivated.
     Since 1984, Canadian Olympic officials have alternated the flag-bearing duties between anglophone and francophone athletes.
     Brassard went on to finish fourth in his event. Afterward he said carrying the flag was a "mistake" and suggested athletes might not be the best ones to handle the ceremonial duties.
     The COA was also roundly criticized for the lack of French content at a reception for its athletes.
     In Ottawa, Bloc Quebecois officials complained in the Commons that the slight was disrespectful. Heritage Minister Sheila Copps agreed, calling the faux pas an "embarrassment" to the COA.
     At the centre of linguistic firestorm was a video where fans and celebrities alike extended best wishes to Canadian athletes. The video, produced by a Toronto company, was entirely in English and featured all Toronto-based well wishers.
     Then late Tuesday night, just two days after Rebagliati made history by being snowboarding's first Olympic gold medallist, the IOC stripped the 26-year-old native of Whistler, B.C., of his medal after he tested positive for marijuana.
     "It's never pleasant for the Olympic Association, the sport, the athlete, the public, anyone, it's not pleasant to go through this at any time," Letheran said of the Rebagliati case.
     "There's always great sadness and great embarrassment."