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    Thursday, February 12, 1998

    Rebagliati bitter against Canadian testers

    By JUSTIN KINGLSEY -- Canadian Press
     NAGANO, Japan -- Snowboarder Ross Rebagliati says he wants to know why Canadian authorities didn't tell him he had traces of marijuana in his system before he went to Nagano for the Winter Olympics.
     "I had been tested twice and I only found out after I tested positive in the Olympics that in both of those tests it (marijuana) had shown on the tests," Rebagliati told CBC-TV on Thursday evening. "I felt a little betrayed by the people who were making the tests that I wasn't made available the results of those tests."
     Canadian officials said he was not told because the amount shown were allowable under international ski federation rules. But Rebagliati said had he known of the test results, he could have adjusted his routine to avoid further exposure to the drug.
     "I could have easily made arrangements to do a lot of different things that I didn't do."
     An appeal tribunal, citing a legal technicality, ruled early Thursday that the native of Whistler, B.C., could keep his giant slalom Olympic gold medal despite testing positive for marijuana.
     After holding a news conference Thursday evening, the snowboarder received a call from prime Minister Jean Chretien on air while being interviewed by CTV News.
     "He wanted to let me know that everyone in Canada was behind me 100 per cent, that he was proud of me and he just wanted to make sure I got that message," Rebagliati said of the call.
     It had been a tortuous 48 hours for the 26-year-old Rebagliati, who said how he felt when they told him he tested positive.
     "I felt weak. I didn't know what to think, what to say. I started feeling cold and I had to sit down and take a few deep breaths and try to compose myself."
     Rebagliati proudly held up the gold medal he won for a second time and said he was not going to change his friends, even if they smoked marijuana.
     "I may have to wear a gas mask from now on," Rebagliati said.
     "I'm definitely going to change my lifestyle. Unfortunately, I'm not going to change my friends. I don't care what you think about that," he told a news conference. "My friends are real and I'm going to stand behind them.
     He thanked his friends, family and country for backing him during his ordeal.
     The decision to return the snowboarder's medal was cheered across Canada.
     "My reaction, like a lot of Canadians, was very positive," said Heritage Minister Sheila Copps.
     She -- like many others -- took pains to say the decision shouldn't be taken as an endorsement of marijuana use.
     "This is not a test of character or a test of morality," Copps said in Ottawa. "This is a test of performance-enhancing drugs."
     In Nagano, Carol Anne Letheren, head of the Canadian Olympic Association, suggested Rebagliati would make a good spokesman for drug awareness programs, particularly those aimed at youth.
     "I can say this is a real opportunity for Ross to show leadership in the sport of snowboarding," Letheren said. "What we do next will be an important step."
     Anne French of Saint John, N.B., mother of Canadian Olympic snowboarder Mark Fawcett, said Thursday she hopes the image that all snowboarders are dope fiends will go, well, up in smoke.
     "I'm glad Ross got his medal back because I think it was a shame and had nothing to do with his accomplishment in coming down that hill.
     "But I don't believe in marijuana and I really think there still should be some sort of reprimand, but I don't think that's going to happen."
     The decision enabling Rebagliati to keep his medal will once again allow the 26-year-old to become the face of snowboarding -- one of the fastest-growing and most lucrative sports in the world.
     "It's great news for us, for Ross, for the whole world," said Sean Litteljohn, managing editor of Snowboard Canada Magazine. "This will make him a household name, although we would rather he be known for his performance."
     Rebagliati got the good news after the Court of Arbitration for Sport ruled it was unfair to take his medal because there was no explicit agreement between the IOC and the International Ski Federation (FIS) that marijuana should be treated as a banned substance.
     The decision of the appeals panel -- consisting of Jan Paulsson of France, Richard Young of the U.S., and Maria Zuchowicz of Poland -- was unanimous and allows Canada to retain its lone gold medal thus far at the Games. Canadians have also won a silver and a bronze.
     "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," said arbitration court official Jean-Philippe Rochat.
     The ruling ended one nightmare and after extensive questioning by police and a search of his room, Rebagliati was a free man and once again a gold medallist.
     "Everything we did was just a procedure," he said of his time with Japanese police, who were enforcing strict local laws against marijuana. "This is just Japanese custom and nothing happened that upset me or anyone from the Canadian Olympic Organization."
     A police spokesman said "there is no evidence of Mr. Rebagliati either using or possessing marijuana in Japan."
     At a pub in Whistler, just before last call early Thursday morning, the manager turned down thumping music to announce "Ross gets his gold back!"
     A roar erupted.
     "It's great," said bar patron Douglas Epp. "It's the thing to do. It's a medal for Canada. It's awesome. Having such trace parts of marijuana -- that's no reason he shouldn't keep it."
     "We're ecstatic," said Whistler Mayor Hugh O'Reilly. "We were proud of Ross before. We're exceedingly proud now."
     The snowboarder said he hadn't used marijuana since April 1997, blaming exposure to second-hand smoke for the positive test.
     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.