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    Thursday, February 12, 1998

    Rebagliati gets support from homefront

     NAGANO, Japan (CP) -- Many of Canada's political and sports leaders came to the defence Wednesday of Ross Rebagliati, the gold-medal winning Olympic snowboarder who tested positive for marijuana.
     Rower Silken Laumann, herself the centre of a doping scandal in 1995 Pan-American Games for taking the wrong cold medicine, said she was backing the 26-year-old with the electric smile.
     "This is the same suspension given to Ben Johnson 10 years ago; what kind of message are we sending with that?" said Laumann. "I, for one, am very proud of him (Rebagliati)."
     Even Johnson backed Rebagliati, who might not have wanted that kind of support.
     "Ross is going through a tough time right now," Johnson told The Fan radio station Wednesday night. "I'm here to support him. I think he should get his gold medal back."
     Rebagliati arrived Wednesday night at a Japanese police station for questioning about drug use. Dressed casually and looking stern, he fought his way through a barrage of reporters and television crews into the police station at Nakano, outside the Olympic city of Nagano.
     Japan has strict anti-drug laws and does not allow anyone convicted of drug use into the country. Possession of marijuana can carry a five-year drug term.
     The International Olympic Committee has said there is no evidence Rebagliati used marijuana on Japanese soil.
     Unlike the anabolic steroid stanozolol used by Johnson 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.
     "If anything, it's a performance-impairing drug," said Richard Garlick, spokesman for the Ottawa-based Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse.
     Solicitor General Andy Scott, Conservative Leader Jean Charest and Opposition Leader Preston Manning, whose Reform party is anti-drug, issued words of support from Ottawa for the beleaguered snowboarder.
     "Every Canadian would love to see him have his medal," said Scott.
     Charest said Rebagliati shouldn't see his gold go up in smoke. And Manning said Canada "shouldn't give up that medal without a fight."
     The Canadian Olympic Association battled on Rebagliati's behalf, appealing the International Olympic Committee's decision to disqualify him and to order him to hand over his gold medal.
     Rebagliati appeared before an independent tribunal that has until today to render its decision.
     Canadian officials argued 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 use.
     "Ross has stated to us that he hasn't used marijuana since April '97," said Carol Anne Letheren, chief executive officer of the Canadian Olympic Association. "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."
     In Rebagliati's home town of Whistler, B.C., friends said they planned a big welcome home party next week.
     "My plan is to go ahead with everything, regardless," said party organizer Graham Turner.
     There was support for the snowboarder in other parts of the country as well.
     "They're making a big issue out of nothing," said Greg Marks, 38, a district supervisor with a collection agency in Edmonton. "Leave it alone, get a life."
     And there was support from snowboard teammate Michael Michalchuk at the halfpipe competition at the Games. After completing his run Wednesday night, the 20-year-old from Calgary flashed a banner saying: Ross is the Champion, Give the Gold Back.
     "I made it because I believe in Ross, he won fair and square, he is the gold medallist, he is the world champion and no one can deny him that," Michalchuk said. "He was on top of the world, this should never have happened to him.
     "You can't do that to a person."
     But U.S. figure skater Michelle Kwan said Rebagliati deserved to have his medal yanked. "Rules are rules," said Kwan in Nagano. "You've got to follow them."
     Rebagliati was the first athlete to test positive for drugs at the Nagano Games. Officials said they couldn't recall another Olympic case involving marijuana.
     The Court of Arbitration for Sport -- the independent body that heard the appeal -- overturned Olympic penalties at the 1996 Atlanta Summer Games, the first Olympics for the court.
     Four Russians and one Lithuanian were kicked out for using the banned drug bromantan. Two of them -- swimmer Andrei Korneyev and wrestler Zafar Gulyov -- had won bronze.
     But the court ruled both should be given "the benefit of the doubt" because of the uncertainty over whether bromantan actually acts as a stimulant. Korneyev and Gulyov got their medals back and the IOC ultimately "ignored" the positive drug tests for all five.
     Rebagliati also had some support among Olympic officials.
     "For me marijuana is not a problem of doping but of education," Prince Alexandre de Merode, chairman of the IOC medical commission, said after appearing at the hearing.
     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.
     "My opinion is we have been fighting for a number of years against doping and I don't think this is doping," Pound said.
     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 not 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)."
     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.