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    Thursday, February 12, 1998

    Reefer madness clouds issue

    Ottawa Bureau
     OTTAWA -- So here we are again; one toke over the finish-line.
     Of course, the way Ross Rebagliati tells it, those 17.8 nanograms of weed in his pee came from someone else's joint. Feeble as it is, that explanation apparently cut it with the Chief Executive Officer of the Canadian Olympic Association.
     But while Carol Ann Letheren might be buying the second-hand smoke alibis, the IOC really doesn't care how dope got into Rebagliati's body. What matters is that it showed up in two tests whose results are not disputed and that marijuana is on the list of banned substances for athletes participating in the Winter Olympics -- along with alcohol, caffeine, steroids, and certain anesthetics.
     Ergo, Ross' disqualification and exclusion from the Games and our renewed Seoul-searching.
     (By the time you read this, Ross may indeed be golden again. The Independent Court of Arbitration may commute his sentence from banishment and disgrace to a few hours in the glare of international media red wrists and his gold medal. But even if that should happen, what follows still follows.)
     Strange defence
     Was it T.S. Eliot who said April was the coolest month? Ross says that he hasn't had a personal dalliance with Mary Jane since last April. A strange defence, but one that the Winterlude Crowd in Ottawa is buying into hook, line, and skate-guards.
     With news of this latest Olympic Gold Robbery, I laced up my skates and conducted the Canal Poll. What I found was that my fellow Canadians don't take kindly to seeing the accomplishments of their super-jocks go up in smoke.
     Take Mary, a government secretary out for a skate on her lunch hour.
     "They have no right to take away his medal. He didn't even smoke the stuff, he just happened to be in a place where someone else was smoking it. Anyway, it isn't as if it got him down the hill any faster."
     Not so fast, Proud Mary. For the record, here's what the Director General of the I.O.C., Francois Carrard, had to say on that score:
     "There is quite a discussion about marijuana. I am told in some situations it could be performance-enhancing. It could effect the behavior of some athletes."
     And then there was Robert, an employee of Health Canada who says that when he takes a break from his exertions on the blades, he often lights up on one of the green park benches that line the country's longest skating rink.
     "Marijuana is a recreational drug and it's a lot better for you than booze. Even if the guy did have a toke, so what? It's not like this is another Ben Johnson."
     The collective whine coming out of Canadians over Doperboard is really about the lingering psychic scar of a fallen hero of a decade ago. For three glorious days back in the summer of 1988, the whole country basked in the fact that one of its citizen's was officially the World's Fastest Man.
     I have never quite understood such euphoria. But then I am the World's Slowest Man when it comes to grasping the strange sway athletics exercises over the national imagination.
     Then came Ben's fatal pee-stop. Even at that, a lot of people were all sympathy and still somehow felt that Our Ben, and by implication, the Beaver, had been cheated. Only in 1993, when Johnson was caught a second time for using performance-enhancing drugs, did people start wondering about what kind of person we had been cheering for all those years.
     Which brings me back to Ross Rebagliati.
     In their zeal to justify the success of a gifted Canadian athlete, a lot of people are saying that Ross' gold medal should be reinstated because there was no intentional or negligent use of a banned substance -- just as there wasn't in Silken Laumann's case in 1995 when she took Benadryl D and then tested positive for pseudoephedrine in her doping test.
     Ross' supporters also insist that this is not another Ben Johnson case, because it is generally admitted that marijuana does not make you run faster, jump further, or shoot down the mountain like a bullet.
     But there is this small difference that has so far played little part in the current debate. The only place cough medicine is banned is in an athlete's bloodstream during the Olympics. In the case of anabolic steroids, they are banned at the Games, illegal, but not criminal.
     But the last time I looked, it was a criminal offence to buy and use marijuana, both here in Canada and in Japan. So does the Ross Rebagliati story come down to this: The I.O.C. should restore his medal because his apparent breach of the criminal law didn't get him down the mountain that fraction of a second faster than Thomas Prugger of Italy?
     Professional sports has certainly made its accommodation to the recreational, and criminal, drugs routinely used by its multimillionaire athletes. In the old days of baseball and football, the use of illegal drugs by a player was grounds for being banned for life from his sport. Today, cocaine-use gets pro athletes a year in treatment, like throttling the coach or the wife. What really counts is that percentage from three-point land and the number of sacks.
     As skater after skater told me that Ross had done nothing wrong and ought to get his medal back, I pictured him on the milk cartons and TV spots, dazzling the ankle-biters with his prowess on the snowboard and legitimizing pot. "We either have to change our marijuana laws or our values, one or the other," I thought.
     At Dow's Lake, an epiphany of sorts awaited me. There, amongst the dazzling ice-sculptures of Mother Teresa, Brian Mulroney, and bowling polar bears taking aim at penguins was the exhibit that stole the show; a Formula One racing car with its driver giving the thumbs up for victory. It even looked like Jacques Villeneuve. Carved in the ice beside it was the a single word; champion. Brute accomplishment is in the driver's seat these days.
     I guess we better change those marijuana laws.