NAGANO '98

Counterculture hero

Ross Rebagliati’s wild ride through the strange world of Olympic drug testing

JOE CHIDLEY February 23 1998
NAGANO '98

Counterculture hero

Ross Rebagliati’s wild ride through the strange world of Olympic drug testing

JOE CHIDLEY February 23 1998

Counterculture hero

Ross Rebagliati’s wild ride through the strange world of Olympic drug testing

JOE CHIDLEY

BRUCE WALLACE

JOHN DeMONT

DANYLO HAWALESHKA

JENNIFER HUNTER

O Cannabis! Olympic gold gone to pot! What wag could resist the saga of Canadian snow-boarder Ross Rebagliati, the first man in Olympic history to have a gold medal stripped because of evidence of marijuana use? But while the headline writers were having a field day, Rebagliati was finding the ordeal no laughing matter. Last Thursday, while an appeal board reviewed the International Olympic Committee’s decision to disqualify him, the 26-year-old native of Whistler, B.C., sat in a police interrogation room answering questions about his alleged drug use. He was there for seven hours—long enough for the board to overturn the IOC ruling. And when he emerged from the police station—his gold medal, which he had kept in his pants pocket all week, finally hanging around his neck—he looked both shaken and overjoyed. “It has,” he said, “been quite a ride.”

Spoken like a true snowboarder. When the IOCestablished Court of Arbitration for Sport cleared Rebagliati’s victory, the Canadian team—preserving its medal and its image—breathed a collective sigh of relief. The Rebagliati affair highlighted the inconsistencies in the esoteric world of Olympic drug testing. And in Canada, it revealed a continuing political and social ambivalence on the issue of marijuana—a drug that is officially tut-tutted, but often tolerated in practice.

Perhaps it is no surprise that the inaugural Olympic year of snowboarding should be tainted by allegations of illicit drugs: the sport is as close to counterculture as the Games have ever dared, full of young iconoclasts sporting blue-dyed hair and nose rings. Rebagliati’s defence, after a post-race analysis of his urine found 17.8 nanograms of THC—the hallucinogenic element in marijuana—per millilitre, did little to dispel that stereotype. Yes, he said, he had inhaled, but it was other people’s smoke. Rebagliati said he had not smoked marijuana since last April, but he had been exposed to it secondhand while saying goodbye to friends in Whistler on Jan. 31.

Against the judgment of some officials, the Canadian Olympic Association backed up that claim, and immediately appealed the IOC decision. A gutsy move: at a news conference, when COA head Carol Anne Letheren attributed Rebagliati’s positive THC tests to “the amount of time Ross spends in an environment where he is exposed to marijuana users,” reporters guffawed. But according to Dr. Andrew Pipe, the Ottawa-based chairman of the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport and the man whom COA officials called to back up their appeal, the secondhand smoke argument is at least plausible. Studies done in the late 1980s, he says, suggest that levels comparable to those found in Rebagliati’s urine could not be caused by secondhand smoke. But those studies, Pipe notes, used marijuana that had THC levels of 2.5 per cent—and today’s pot, especially in British Columbia, 2 can have more than 30 per cent «

THC. ‘What is the effect on some| body exposed on a regular basis to | high-potency marijuana smoke?” | he asks. “It’s an intriguing question.” £

Another question is whether the g whole affair could have been avoid° ed. Rebagliati was tested twice last year, in the fall and in mid-December. Both times, the tests found THC, although below the 15-nanogram threshold. Last week, Rebagliati openly wondered why Canadian authorities did not tell him about those results until after he tested positive in Nagano. If he had known, he said, he could have avoided the infamous secondhand smoke. In the end, his defence did not matter. The crux of the court of arbitration’s decision was that the IOC does not have the right to strip a snowboarder of a medal based on a positive marijuana test. Under Olympic rules, marijuana is banned only if the sport’s governing body—in this case, the Fédération internationale du ski—specifically says it is. But the court of arbitration found that the FIS had never done so in giant-slalom snowboarding. In other words, a snowboarder can be high as a kite on the hill, and still not be subject to sanctions.

Canadian officials welcomed the decision but were careful not to be seen as pro-pot. “My reaction, like a lot of Canadians’, was very positive,” said Heritage Minister Sheila Copps in Ottawa. But she added: “This is not a test of character or a test of morality; this is a test of performance-enhancing drugs.” Prime Minister Jean Chrétien phoned Rebagliati to express his “100-per-cent support”— after the appeals panel had already ruled. And while some—including the snowboarder’s father, Mark—said the affair should make the government rethink the criminalization of marijuana, Solicitor General Andy Scott responded: “I don’t think that’s a discussion that should be taking place in the context of this particular event.” Letheren, meanwhile, suggested that Rebagliati could emerge from his ordeal as a drug-awareness spokesman—“this is a real opportunity for Ross to show leadership.” But in his post-appeal news conference, the snowboarder pointedly said: “I’m not going to change my friends—I don’t care what you think about that. My friends are real. I will stand up behind them.” Then he added: “I might have to wear a gas mask, whatever.”

In a unique way, he has become both a sports and counterculture hero. And he has a staunch fan back in Vancouver. Sylvia Rebagliati hung a Canadian flag on her front door after her grandson phoned with news of the appeal board’s decision. Over the years, the chest of drawers in her dining-room has become the repository for all his medals and awards. Will he leave his gold with her this time? “Probably not,” she laughs. “I guess he’ll put it in a safety deposit box.”