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    Friday, February 13, 1998

    Golden boy redeemed

    By CHRIS STEVENSON -- Ottawa Sun
      NAGANO -- He had kept it in his front pocket since Tuesday, afraid to look at it, afraid if he brought it out, someone would take it away.
     Snowboarder Ross Rebagliati took his gold medal out yesterday and showed it off for all to see, holding it high, his other hand upraised in triumph, sure that it was his, and he kissed it.
     Rebagliati and his medal made their first public appearance yesterday, officially together again, since his four days of hell started with him flunking a drug test when marijuana showed up in his urine after winning the gold Sunday.
     He emerged yesterday, exonerated, a champion again.
     "When I won the gold medal, it was the best moment of my life," said the 26-year-old from Whistler, B.C.
     "When I got the news I tested positive, it was the worst moment of my life. It all happened in a short period of time and I'll never be able to tell exactly how it was. It was quite a ride."
     Rebagliati put on a poised and polished performance yesterday, switching from English to French, as he tried to detail the wild range of emotions of the past few days and the implications for him and his young sport in the future.
     While he was pressed numerous times to criticize the drug culture associated with his sport and come out against marijuana use, Rebagliati refused.
     "I'd never sit up here and advocate anything," he said. "People have to make decisions and realize the consequences of what they do. If it's bad, you have to deal with it. If it's good, take advantage of it."
     He admitted to being a marijuana user, but said it "never ruled any part of my life. It was a social thing."
     Part of Rebagliati's appeal to the Court of Adjudication for Sports was the marijuana was in his system because he inhaled second-hand marijuana smoke while hanging out with friends in Whistler, home to the most potent marijuana in the world.
     He was adamant, however, he wouldn't be abandoning those friends who had stood behind him in his ordeal.
     "I'll definitely change my lifestyle, but I'm not going to change my friends and I don't care what you think about that. They're real. I'll stand behind them and I won't deviate from that, but I may have to wear a gas mask from now on.
     "I've got friends in high places and I've got friends in low places. I'd rather be with them than against them. The more friends you've got, the better."
     Rebagliati said those friends had rallied around him the last few days and for that he was grateful.
     "The worst the sky came down on me, the more they supported me," he said. "They stood behind me no matter what. I was still the champion to them, with or without the medal, and that was the most important thing for me."
     He has also had to deal with the local police who questioned him for most of the day Thursday. Marijuana possession is a very serious offence here. His luggage and room were searched.
     "At one point at the police station, all I wanted to do was go home," he said. "It was just protocol, something they have to do, regardless. They rarely deviate from what they have to do. I wasn't worried. It was just procedure. They had an open file and they had to close it."
     Carol Anne Letheren, the 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 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."
     At home in Canada, the decision to let Rebagliati keep his medal was cheered across the country.
     "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." -- With files from CP