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    Thursday, February 12, 1998

    Punishment exceeds crime

    By JIM TAYLOR -- Calgary Sun
      For the name Ross Rebagliati, substitute Bonnie and Clyde.
     For flunking a pot test, substitute bank robbery.
     How would these defences sound?
     "Your honor, we ain't robbed no bank since last April."
     "If it please the court, although bank robbery is technically illegal, there is in the laws governing it an acceptable limit. My clients took this to mean it was a crime only if you robbed really big banks.
     "Yeah, and nobody warned us we were under suspicion for those two piggy banks jobs before Christmas. If we'd known there was any kind of problem we'd have been a lot more careful since then.
     "And besides, we weren't robbin' that last bank, we was just in there meetin' a few friends. How were we supposed to know there was gonna be a stick-up?"
     For the record, I believe Ross Rebagliati should be allowed to keep the snowboarding Olympic gold medal and to escape with a reprimand and perhaps a suspension.
     Gold was won on the hill at breakneck speed and should not be lost in a board room debate on the righteousness of 15 parts per million vs. 17.8.
     But there is a problem here -- and before anyone sniffs and says "Well, it's only snowboarding and who cares?", be reminded that this same problem conceivably could do in Canada's men's hockey team.
     The rules are foggy, the interpretation fragmented, the safety nets holed.
     In most countries involved in the Winter Olympics, including this one, pot smoking is illegal.
     So how can there be an "acceptable level" in the athlete's system?
     Ross Rebagliati insists he hasn't smoked pot since last April.
     Canada's mandatory drug testers twice found traces in his system before Christmas.
     If they were residual, still hanging around from the April toke, why wasn't he TOLD they were there?
     Why didn't someone say "Look, Ross, you're under the limit now, but be cool. Don't hang around places where it's being smoked, because inhaling secondary smoke could be enough to push you over the top."
     Given his determination since April not to smoke pot again lest he risk his Olympic bid, why was he dumb enough to hang out where it was being smoked?
     Lie down next to a dog with fleas, chances are you'll come away with fleas of your own.
     This isn't the first time the support system has broken down.
     After the Ben Johnson fiasco in Seoul, a member of the medical staff from another sport told me that he and others he knew had gone to the Canadian track and field people and said, "Look at Ben's eyes. They're yellow. He's on something."
     They were told, he said, to go away and look after their own athletes.
     Why? Because Ben was potential gold, and no one was going to rock the boat.
     At the Pan-American Games, rower Silken Laumann tested positive after taking a medication prescribed by a team physician to treat her congestion.
     She took the right brand, but the box with the wrong label. No one told her there was a difference.
     Maybe she should have known, or checked.
     Maybe Ross Rebagliati should have considered the possible dangers of secondary pot smoke.
     Ultimately, the onus is on the athlete. But there are times, like this one, when the punishment exceeds the crime.
     Which brings us to hockey.
     The International Ice Hockey Federation penalty for drug abuse is suspension of the player.
     The International Olympic Committee penalty is immediate suspension of the entire team. In this case, the IOC rules.
     NHLers are new to the Olympics, and new to doing what they're told.
     One player pops a Sudafed for his cold and blows the test, they're all out of the Games. On that day, Ross Rebagliati becomes a minor Olympian footnote.