Friday, February 13, 1997
Medal reversal is just,
excuse is lame

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Ross Rebagliati gets to keep his medal after all.
(AP photo)
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NAGANO, Japan - Ross Rebagliati says he no longer inhales. Says he stopped smoking marijuana last April. Says the dope in his drug test must be from secondary sources, and reflects not his crime but his community.

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Believe what you will, but know this: The test results were indisputable. The drug in question is illegal. The Canadian snowboarder was warned. And the chump still got caught.

For 24 excruciating hours, Rebagliati lived a tabloid nightmare. The gold medal he had won in the giant slalom was revoked, and snowboarding's first-ever Olympic champion was being portrayed instead as the poster boy for the excesses of Generation X.

The medal has since been restored. Thus Rebagliati's story ends with neither a whimper nor a bong.

''We've learned,'' Rebagliati said Friday morning. ''The sport's learned. The Olympics have learned.''

The Court of Arbitration For Sport reversed the decision of the International Olympic Committee Thursday night and in so doing revealed that athletes have regained some rights within the Olympic Movement. The three-judge panel, first convened in Atlanta two years ago, ruled that the IOC's decision to strip Rebagliati of his medal was rendered recklessly. Without explicit notice. Without due process.

''We do not suggest for a moment that the use of marijuana should be condoned,'' the appeals panel said. ''Nor do we suggest that sports authorities are not entitled to exclude athletes found to use cannabis. But if sports authorities wish to add their own sanctions to those that are edicted by public authorities, they must do so in an explicit manner.''

The tribunal determined the IOC and Nagano organizers had failed to adequately distinguish between a ''restricted'' and a ''banned'' substance, and had failed to effectively challenge Rebagliati's version of events.

Rebagliati's story stretches the willing suspension of disbelief, and his exoneration sends a mixed message, but his case nonetheless closes with justice done. Much as the IOC should discourage drug use, it can not pretend that marijuana affords athletes a competitive edge.

''That's performance enhancing?'' said Mike Richter, goaltender for the American hockey team. ''I would think it would make you want to sit on your butt and eat doughnuts.''

Rebagliati's drug test showed 17.8 nanograms per millimeter of marijuana, nearly 19 percent more than the international ski federation's allowable limit.

One member of the Olympic media, after consulting with medical researchers, concluded that the only way Rebagliati could have tested so plainly positive based strictly on second-hand smoke was by spending a week in Cheech and Chong's car.

Because Rebagliati's tests in September and December revealed lower levels of marijuana than his Nagano sample, his claim of having quit cold turkey in April is curious. Still, that's the story he's sticking to, and the arbitrators bought it.

''I'm definitely going to change my lifestyle,'' Rebagliati said. ''I'm not going to change my friends. I may have to wear a gas mask.''

Canadian snowboarder Mike Michalchuck, like Rebagliati a resident of Whistler, B.C., says the drug scene there is virtually inescapable. ''You don't have a choice,'' Michalchuck said, ''whether

you ingest it in your system or not.''

''We've all been in rooms where people were smoking pot,'' said Canadian snowboarder Tara Teigen. ''None of us want to jeopardize our medals or careers.''

You would think Olympic athletes - particularly medal contenders - would not want to be placed in that position. You would think they would scrupulously avoid the drug scene, even as a spectator, in Olympic years.

You would think they would think.

Eldredge takes the steady path
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