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Wednesday, February 11, 1998 Published at 11:26 GMT

Sport: Winter Olympics 98: Snowboard

Appeal starts in Olympic drugs case
image: [ Ross Rebagliati celebrates winning his gold medal in the Snowboard Men's Giant Slalom on Sunday ]
Ross Rebagliati celebrates winning his gold medal in the Snowboard Men's Giant Slalom on Sunday

The Court of Arbitration in Sport (CAS) has started hearing the appeal of Canadian snowboarder Ross Rebagliati who was stripped of his Nagano Olympic gold medal after failing a drug test.

Richard Young of the United States, Jan Paulsen of Sweden and Maria Zuchowitz of Poland were the three lawyers named to hear the appeal.

Evidence will be given by the Canadian Olympic Association for Rebagliati, who won the snowboarding men's giant slalom last Sunday and the International Olympic Committee, which ordered the Canadian disqualified.

The CAS, which has a special panel at the Winter Olympics, should give a verdict within 24 hours, according to Jean-Philippe Rochat, secretary general of the Lausanne-based CAS.

Rebagliati has denied that he smoked marijuana and says he is innocent of the charges levelled by the International Olympic Committee.

"I've been trying for 11 years to be the best snowboarder in the world ... I've worked too hard to let this slip through my fingers," Rebagliati said in a statement released by the Canadian snowboarding team.

[ image: Carol Anne Letheren: IOC should reverse decision]
Carol Anne Letheren: IOC should reverse decision
The Head of the Canadian Olympic Association, Carol Anne Letheren, said Rebagliati has assured officials he had not used marijuana since April 1997, and that the positive test was due to the times "he spends around marijuana users."

"Marijuana is not a performance-enhancing drug and in fact does the contrary," she said.

"There's no question that minute traces in Ross's system would not have affected the outcome of the competition."

She has called for the IOC to reverse its decision and implement a severe reprimand rather than suspension.

"There's always great sadness and great embarrassment," Letheren said. "This will undoubtedly be tough for the sport."

Rebagliati, 26, is a full-time snowboarder from Whistler, British Columbia.

At his post-victory news conference, Rebagliati said he first realised his Generation-X sport had reached Olympic status when drug testers started to appear at meets.

Rebagliati over marijuana 'limit'

The director of the IOC, Francois Carrard, said that the first part of the two-part drug test found traces of metabolised marijuana in Rebagliati's urine.

The second part of the test turned up more signs of marijuana use, 17.8 nanograms per millilitre, Carrard said. That meant Rebagliati was out.

[ image: Rebagliati's levels tested above 15 nanograms of marijuana per millilitre]
Rebagliati's levels tested above 15 nanograms of marijuana per millilitre
Whilst international ski federation rules allow 15 nanograms per millilitre, the IOC allows none. But the fact that Rebagliati's levels tested above 15 "did have a certain influence on the debate," Carrard said.

Carrard said he had no indication that Rebagliati used the drug in Japan or that Japanese authorities were investigating.

"There is no evidence at all that marijuana was consumed here," he said.

But the Kyodo News agency has reported that police in the Nagano province, will ask the IOC to submit results of Rebagliati's test on suspicion that he violated Japan's drug laws.

Under the law, a conviction for marijuana possession carries a maximum 7 of years in prison.

Decision was split

Carrard refused to go into details about the IOC's decision-making process. But he did say the IOC board decided by a 3-2 vote that the Canadian broke the rules and must return his medal.

Two unnamed members of the IOC board abstained from the vote.

[ image: The IOC could yet reverse its decision]
The IOC could yet reverse its decision
The IOC also could have reprimanded Rebagliati, while allowing him to keep his medal.

"Opinions were quite split," Carrard said. "It was an unusually close decision."

Marijuana has long been on the IOC list of banned drugs, but Carrard said he had no memory of the drug ever appearing before at the Olympics. "There are no cases which are similar," he said.

It is not the first drug problem for Canada at the Olympics.

The Toronto sprinter Ben Johnson was stripped of his gold medal and world record in 1988 in Seoul for using the anabolic steroid, stanozolol.

But Carrard said that the situations were certainly not similar.

"Canada can say that there goes a gold medal, but you can't compare the two cases," he said.

Although snowboarders acknowledge their sport's freewheeling reputation, they say illegal drug use is hardly the rule.

"I wouldn't say that every other snowboarder is out there puffing a joint," said Michael Wood, the Canadian snowboarding team's leader.

"I don't think it's more prevalent in snowboarding than it is in any other sport."

Other substances banned by the IOC include alcohol, caffeine, local anaesthetics and performance-enhancing steroids.

Although marijuana is not usually considered performance enhancing, Carrard said he had been "told that in some situations, it could be."

In another drug case, the US bobsledder Michael Dionne was removed from the Olympic team after his drug suspension was upheld, but he was urged to stay in Nagano because he was only guilty of "carelessness."

Dionne said he took the banned stimulant ephedrine accidentally in cold medicine.

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