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    Tuesday, February 17, 1998

    Warm welcome for Rebagliati

    By STEVE MERTL -- Canadian Press
     VANCOUVER -- Canada's most notorious Olympian returned home from Japan on Monday night to a warm but low-key welcome, though he's bracing for a mammoth party tonight.
     Ross Rebagliati won the first gold medal ever awarded in snowboarding, only to lose it briefly to a positive marijuana test that was overturned on appeal.
     After a tumultuous week, capped by an appearance Monday night on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno, Rebagliati arrived from Los Angeles to a welcome from about 100 supporters, including his mother.
     Lynda Partone waited patiently while Rebagliati, wearing his medal, went down a long line of fans, shaking hands and signing autographs before reaching her welcoming arms.
     "I'm ecstatic; moms have to be ecstatic," said Partone, who interrupted a cruise to meet her son. "We know that Ross didn't do anything wrong."
     Rebagliati admitted smoking marijuana as late as last April, but said the trace amounts of pot in his system came from second-hand smoke, possibly inhaled during some pre-Olympic sendoff in his home town of Whistler, B.C.
     Rebagliati's homecoming party today at Whistler is slated to be aired on the Outdoor Life channel at 8 p.m. EST.
     A tired Rebagliati said Monday the controversy has not harmed his future prospects.
     "I think any press is good press," he said. "Obviously, good press is better than bad press but I don't think it's hurt much."
     Certainly his fans agree.
     "He didn't do it himself," said Jenn Munson of suburban White Rock, one of the dozens of teenage girls who came to the airport. "He says he didn't; I believe him. I don't think he's that stupid."
     Debate continued over the Rebagliati case in Nagano, meanwhile.
     International doping chief Prince Alexandre de Merode will urge Olympic leaders on Wednesday to introduce rules to punish athletes who take "social" drugs like marijuana even though they are not believed to be performance-enhancing.
     De Merode said today he would propose that social drugs be put on the International Olympic Committee's list of banned substances following the confused Ross Rebagliati scandal involving the drug at the Nagano Olympics.
     But in Los Angeles, the drug test produced laughs as Leno ribbed the Canadian.
     "So unlike Clinton, you inhaled but didn't smoke. He smoked but did not inhale," Leno said to laughter.
     Rebagliati recounted the three-day roller-coaster ride that started with his gold-medal run and ended with a 10-hour Japanese police interrogation in the wake of the drug test.
     He said he drew strength from support of Canadians at home and fellow athletes at Nagano, including the silver- and bronze-medal winners in his event. The second-place finisher planned to refuse the gold if Rebagliati lost his appeal, he said.
     "Between losing the medal and getting it back, I didn't have a whole lot to ride on," he said. "The letters that came through that were forwarded to me by the kids were the ones that actually made a big difference."
     Whistler, a posh mountain resort community about 90 kilometres north of here, plans a huge welcome rally for Rebagliati tonight. Organizers expect thousands of people to jam the village square.
     Rebagliati, 26, said he'll return to the world snowboarding circuit for the last three races of the season. He's currently fourth in the championship standings.
     He also wants to try for a spot in on the 2002 Olympic team for the Games in Salt Lake City.
     Meanwhile, Rebagliati plans to make the most of the opportunities his new profile affords.
     He's tentatively agreed to sign with IMG, a high-profile agency, and is entertaining a stream of sponsorship and endorsement offers, after having had none going into the Olympics. One prospect is Nike, which Rebagliati had been courting for two years.
     "They haven't been interested, until now."
     Rebagliati agrees with supporters here who have suggested he now would make a good anti-drug spokesman for youth.
     "I don't want to see kids thinking they can take drugs and have a good life," he said.
     But he seemed ambivalent about adults using pot.
     "I'm not going to stand here in front of everybody and condone the use of marijuana," he said. "I think that everyone has to decide for themselves what they want to do and live with those consequences."
     Nor will he turn his back on the pot-smoking friends who might have been responsible for his positive drug test.
     "Are you going to change friends because they speed or they stole a skateboard in high school?" he said.