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    Thursday, February 12, 1998

    Rebagliati reaches pot o' gold

     NAGANO, Japan (AP) -- This time, no one can take it away.
     After losing his gold medal for a day because he tested positive for marijuana, Canadian snowboarder Ross Rebagaliati won it again Thursday -- not by beating competitors, but by convincing an appeals panel that the International Olympic Committee didn't play by the rules when it stripped him of his prize.
     "It's been a tough couple of days for him," said Carol Anne Letheren, head of Canada's Olympic committee.
     Avoiding the thorny question of recreational drug use, the Court for Arbitration of Sport said it ruled on one point and one point only: that the International Olympic Committee, lacking an agreement with the international ski federation on marijuana use, could not strip Rebagliati of his medal.
     "It's purely the legal issue. It's not our role to examine the social issues at this stage," said Jean Philippe Rochat, secretary general of the CAS.
     "It's a clear message that if the international sports body wants such rules, it has to specify clearly that marijuana is a forbidden substance."
     The panel's decision was unanimous, didn't require a vote and cannot be appealed, Rochat said. The IOC said it would comply with the ruling.
     Rebagliati had been allowed to keep the medal in his possession pending the outcome of his appeal. Upon learning the result, Letheren said, he pulled it from his pocket and put it back on.
     Rebagliati, 26, of Whistler, British Columbia, won the men's giant slalom on Sunday in the first Winter Games at which snowboarding has been a medal sport. As a medal winner, he submitted a urine sample.
     On Wednesday, the IOC said it was taking away the medal because the test came back positive for marijuana -- 17.8 nanograms per milliliter. Rebagliati says he hasn't smoked marijuana since April 1997 and must have inhaled second-hand smoke during a going-away party in Canada late last month.
     Letheren welcomed the decision as fair and insisted it was not a technicality, though she agreed the appeals panel was "ruling on rules." She underscored that her organization's pleasure at the favorable ruling doesn't mean it endorses illegal drug use.
     "This could potentially send out a mixed message," Letheren acknowledged. "But what's important here is that this athlete is treated fairly in this competition."
     The panel's decision hinged on the legal intricacies of agreements between the IOC and the ski federation.
     Both groups include marijuana on their lists of restricted substances. But the two have no formal agreement governing the use of marijuana by Olympic skiers or snowboarders, and Letheren said the ski federation never asked the IOC to test for marijuana. In addition, the IOC used its own Medical Code to make the decision -- again without agreement by the ski federation.
     As a result, the panel ruled, the IOC had no power to strip Rebagliati's medal because of the positive marijuana test.
     "We do not suggest for a moment that the use of marijuana should be condoned," the appeals board said in its decision.
     It said that though marijuana use "is a serious social concern," the decision must be made "within the context of the law of sports."
     Though nothing indicates Rebagliati came into contact with marijuana in Japan, he also faces a criminal investigation here. He appeared Thursday afternoon at the Nakano Police Station near the Shiga Kogen ski area, the snowboarding venue, for questioning, and left after several hours. Letheren said he returned to his hotel while police searched his room.