Panel Rules Snowboarder Can Keep Gold Medal
By Rachel Alexander
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 13, 1998; Page C1
NAGANO, Feb. 13 (Friday) Snowboarder Ross Rebagliati was being questioned by Japanese police Thursday night when Canadian Olympic officials gave him the news. An appeals court had decided he could keep his Olympic gold medal, stripped by the International Olympic Committee after Rebagliati tested positive for marijuana.
He reached into his pocket in the middle of the police interview and slipped the medal around his neck.
"The medal had remained in my front pocket," Rebagliati said this morning, finally free of 72 hours of meetings with officials. The interviews with police, while long, were relatively routine and ended without his being charged.
"I wasn't able to look at it for three days because I wasn't sure if it was going to be mine, but I wanted it to be close to me."
Rebagliati, 26, won the giant slalom on Sunday. It was the first Olympic medal in snowboarding, a sport initially celebrated here for its hip, unconventional aura. But on Wednesday, the counterculture identity of the sport turned from groovy to grave when the IOC revoked the medal. The Canadian Olympic Association (COA) appealed the decision immediately, and on Thursday the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) ruled he could keep the medal.
The court avoided the issue of the recreational drug use, however, by citing a legal technicality: Marijuana is a restricted substance under IOC rules, not a banned substance. The IOC instead based its decision on an International Ski Federation (FIS) rule that said concentrations of marijuana above a certain threshold were banned. The IOC has no agreement with FIS on this issue, however, so it has no legal authority to strip the medal, the appeals court ruled. The decision was unanimous and cannot be appealed.
Rebagliati said the roller coaster of the last few days has been the most emotional time of his life. "I felt lightheaded," he said of the moment he learned the IOC wanted to strip his medal. "I felt cold and sweaty, and I had to sit down. It didn't feel real. I said to myself, 'This can't be happening.'
"When I won the medal, that was the best moment of my life. When I got the news I had tested positive, it was the worst moment of my life. It was quite a ride."
Rebagliati has maintained that he has not smoked marijuana since April. Instead, he believes he inhaled second-hand marijuana smoke at a going-away party held for him near his British Columbia home on Jan. 31.
COA Chief Executive Officer Carol-Anne Letheren said that the COA had been told by medical advisers that a person who just smoked a marijuana cigarette would have a concentration of 400 nanograms per milliliter in a urine specimen. Rebagliati's sample had a concentration of 17.8. FIS guidelines state that "action may be taken" against any athlete above 15.
Letheren stressed that the COA is not endorsing recreational marijuana use. She did recognize, however, that it could be interpreted that way.
In Canada, Rebagliati has become something of a cult hero, getting widespread support from the community and even some politicians.
Letheren noted that this could be an opportunity for Rebagliati to become an anti-drug spokesman within the snowboarding community, but this morning Rebagliati declined to make any such comments.
"I'm not going to change my friends; I don't care what any of you think about that," he said. As for putting himself in a situation in which he could inhale marijuana smoke, he said: "Life is an educational process. Everyone knows you're supposed to wear a condom, but it doesn't always happen."
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