Winter Olympics: Rebagliati reclaims snowboarding's pot of gold

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The Independent Online
WITH one bound, the beleaguered sport of snowboarding burst free from its bonds here yesterday. Ross Rebagliati, who tested positive for marijuana after winning snowboarding's first Olympic title here on Sunday, was able to take the gold medal out of his pocket and hang it back round his neck after being cleared on appeal.

Rebagliati profited from a manoeuvre more involved than any he has ever attempted on a snowboard - the Legal Loophole, involving deft footwork and a 180-degree turn. The Court of Arbitration for Sports concluded that an ambiguity in the rules on marijuana operating at these Winter Games meant the snowboarder had no legal case to answer.

But, sadly for the 22-year-old Canadian, life was still far from totally cool. Wearing his medal, he spent more than 11 hours at a local police station convincing officers there was no basis for charging him with drug abuse. It was, Canadian officials maintained, a mere matter of formalities.

The ruling left many asking where Olympic sport now stands in relation to marijuana. When it was suggested to the Canadian chef de mission, Carol Anne Letheren, that anyone could compete at the Games even if they were high as a kite, she replied: "Under these rules, yes."

It transpired that the International Ski Federation (FIS) regulations which had been applied, offering the option of punishment for anyone whose sample registered more than 15 nanograms per millilitre of marijuana, were drafted with other sports in mind.

FIS officials explained that it was meant to deter sportsmen and women tempted to take the drug to calm their fears before more perilous events, giving the example of ski jumping.

For obscure reasons, the name of Eddie Edwards was also mentioned at this juncture by the FIS people - but Letheren was swift in her denial of any implication that the fondly remembered British jumper was either scared or a marijuana user.

She added that the snowboard slalom in which Rebagliati won his title was regarded by the FIS as a technical sport. "They believe taking marijuana would have a detrimental effect in that event," Letheren explained.

She added that Rebagliati's defence that his reading of 17.8 nanograms was due to passive smoking from his housemates back home in Whistler, near Vancouver, was not even considered by the court.

The Canadians had prepared medical evidence suggesting that prolonged exposure to marijuana smoke - for example, an hour a day for six days - could create readings of well over 100. The reading for someone who had just smoked a joint would be 400.

Other choice new evidence was also revealed. "It is Ross's belief," Letheren said, "that because of the nature of the substance where he lives in Whistler - in that area it is four times more potent than in any other area - the only explanation he can give is that it was second-hand." How this is likely to affect Whistler's tourist trade remains to be seen.

"I think FIS clarification early on in these Games would certainly have helped everybody," said Letheren, an IOC member, with painstaking diplomacy.

However you view the Olympics' youngest sport, you cannot accuse it of being low profile. Austria's world champion, Martin Freinademetz, was thrown out of the Games yesterday after a party during which furniture was broken and a hotel switchboard was put out of action after a can of beer was thrown over it.

Freinademetz was among the guests at the snowboarders' hotel, the Shig- Kogen Prince, who were involved in a drunken party in the lobby. "We had a party, we had fun, something got broken," said Freinademetz, a 28-year- old known as The Terminator because of his aggressive racing style. "It's not cool, but it happens."

Although local officials were not keen to press charges, Austrian officials felt differently and withdrew the accreditation of Freinademetz, who finished seventh in Sunday's slalom event.

Freinademetz, who later apologised and offered to pay for any damage, rounded off his night of fun with a brief spin in an official snowmobile.

His qualities as a future role model for the sport look questionable, but Letheren yesterday expressed the opinion that Rebagliati, who she said had handled himself extremely well in difficult circumstances, now had a "real opportunity" to demonstrate leadership within the sport.

"We are concerned that this ruling could send out a mixed message to young people," Letheren said. "We know marijuana is a drug which many people use, but our information is that this is not a problem in snowboarding at the elite level. Guys like Ross can stand up and say: 'It isn't part of it'."

Perhaps he will. But don't hold your breath.