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    Friday, February 13, 1998

    Rebagliati: 'I may have to wear a gas mask from now on'

     NAGANO, Japan (AP) -- A smiling Ross Rebagliati returned to the public eye today a gold medalist once more, chastened by his tangle with the Olympic legal system but vowing not to forsake friends no matter what they might do, say or ingest.
     The Canadian snowboarder, whose medal was reinstated by an appeals board after the International Olympic Committee stripped him of it when he tested positive for marijuana, called this week's events a learning experience. He thanked friends, family and country for standing behind him.
     "The worse the sky came down on me, the more they supported me," Rebagliati said. "No matter what the outcome was, I was their champion, and that was the most important thing -- with or without the medal."
     Confident but not cocky, the 26-year-old with the tousled blond hair wore his nation's Olympic jacket and the medal that he'd kept safe in his front pocket while the appeals process played out.
     Rebagliati argued successfully that the International Olympic Committee didn't play by the rules when it stripped him of his prize. He said the drug traces came from second-hand smoke -- marijuana used by his friends at a going-away party last month in Whistler, British Columbia.
     "I'm definitely going to change my lifestyle. ... I'm not going to change my friends," he said at a news conference. "I don't care what you think about that. My friends are real and I'm going to stand behind them."
     But, he quipped, "I may have to wear a gas mask from now on."
     Rebagliati said he wasn't angry at the IOC and sought no apology. "Any time there's a positive test, there's going to be a lot of questions," he said.
     The Court for Arbitration of Sport, in reinstating Rebagliati's medal Thursday, said it ruled only that the IOC, lacking an agreement with the international ski federation governing marijuana use, could not take back the medal. The decision did not address the substantive issue of recreational drugs.
     The panel's decision cannot be appealed.
     Canadians rejoiced. "We were proud of Ross before," said Whistler's mayor, Hugh O'Reilly. "We're really proud now."
     Whistler and other communities in southern British Columbia are reputed to have some of the world's most potent marijuana. Andrew Pipe, chairman of the Canadian Center for Ethics in Sport, said the strength of the region's marijuana is four to five times normal levels.
     British Columbia's outspoken premier, Glen Clark, compared the IOC's attempted disqualification to "getting the electric chair for a parking infraction" -- the trace level of 17.8 nanograms per milliliter found in Rebagliati's urine.
     "You can register a higher rating by watching a Cheech and Chong movie," Clark said.
     Rebagliati won the men's giant slalom 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.
     Marc Hodler, head of the international skiing federation, said his organization opposes marijuana use, but argued the IOC needs a consistent, unequivocal policy to prevent an encore of the Rebagliati case.
     "If a snowboarder has a girlfriend in skating and they have both taken marijuana together, the snowboarder would be disqualified and the skater would get the medal," said Hodler, an IOC executive committee member.
     "This has to be clearer," he said. "The young people have to know what the position of the IOC is."
     Tonight, the IOC announced it had appointed a "working group" to study its marijuana policy. Citing the appeals board's call for an explicit set of rules governing the drug's use, the IOC said it wanted to review its own rules "as soon as possible, taking into account all elements of concern."
     At his news conference, Rebagliati refused an opportunity to speak out against marijuana use specifically, saying he didn't want to judge others.
     "I'm not sending out a message for anybody to do what they don't want to do," he said. "All I'm saying is ... no matter what your decisions are, you have to live with the things you choose to do."
     And what would have happened to the medal if the appeal hadn't gone his way?
     Rebagliati smiled.
     "It wasn't going to be easy to get it back from me."