Wednesday February 11 12:05 PM EST
Banned Snowboard Champ to Talk with Police
By Philippe Naughton
NAGANO (Reuters) - A Canadian snowboarder who won the sport's first ever Olympic gold medal was ordered on Wednesday to hand it back after testing positive for marijuana.
Canada immediately announced it would appeal against the IOC's disqualification of Ross Rebagliati, saying he had not smoked a joint in 10 months and had only inhaled second-hand smoke back home in Canada.
The 26-year-old Rebagliati, dressed in jeans and a thick sweater, had a terse "no comment" for dozens of journalists when he arrived at a central Nagano hotel where the IOC-established Court of Arbitration for Sport sat to hear his appeal.
Earlier in the day, in a statement issued after he learned of his ban, Rebagliati said: "I've worked so hard I don't want to let this thing slip through my hands."
Although the IOC said there was no question Rebagliati had used marijuana since arriving in Japan, Nagano police said they would like to interview him even though it was not illegal to use, rather than possess, the drug.
"We are going to question the athlete about marijuana because possession of the drug is illegal in Japan," a Nagano police spokesman told Reuters.
A police spokesman said the snowboarder had informed them through the Canadian delegation that he would meet them and answer their questions on Thursday.
Rebagliati produced the best performance of an 11-year snowboarding career when he edged Italy's Thomas Prugger in Sunday's giant slalom to win the first Olympic gold of a sport still wedded to its free-living surfing roots.
He was tested immediately after the race and two urine samples both showed the presence of 17.8 parts per million of cannabis metabolite -- just above the 15 ppm threshold set by the International Ski Federation which administers the sport.
Francois Carrard, Director-General of the International Olympic Committee, said the case had been hotly debated in two separate IOC bodies.
First it was discussed by the IOC's medical commission, which voted 13-12 for a formal recommendation that Rebagliati lose his medal and be disqualified.
The IOC's ruling executive board -- comprising the most powerful names in world sport -- then 3-2 to support the recommendation, with two members abstaining and IOC president Juan Antonio Samaranch unable to vote since he is only required to do so if there is a tie. One member of the IOC board is Canada's Dick Pound.
"The performance-enhancing nature of marijuana is being challenged, it's an ongoing debate," Carrard told Reuters. "The levels concerned are very close to the threshold and the options open were either a warning or a sanction."
"I know that for many people it was very difficult to make that decision, but that decision was made."
Canadian team chief Carol Anne Letheren said IOC board member Pound, a lawyer who handles the IOC's marketing, would help prepare Rebagliati's appeal.
"Ross indicated to us that he hasn't used marijuana since 1997," Letheren told a news conference.
"He claims the small amount found in his system is due to the significant amount of time Ross spends in an environment where he is surrounded by marijuana- users."
Letheren said the appeal, which would be decided by the IOC-established Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) within 24 hours, would be based on three arguments.
First, the team would argue that marijuana was not a performance-enhancing drug and could, in fact, harm an athlete's chances of success.
It would also argue that only some sports federations test their athletes for marijuana and thus the IOC regulations on marijuana were not being implemented fairly.
Finally, the appeal would make the case that the amount found in Rebagliati's urine was so minute as to be irrelevant.
"We think the appropriate remedy in this instance would be a severe reprimand," Letheren added.
Prugger won the silver medal behind Rebagliati with Ueli Kestenholz of Switzerland taking bronze and Austrian Dieter Krassnig finishing fourth. Each would move up a place if the ruling was upheld.
Michael Wood, Canada's snowboarding team leader, said Rebagliati last came in contact with marijuana smoke at a party at home on January 31 to see him off, but had not smoked it himself that evening.
It was the most embarrassing doping scandal to hit Canadian sport since the disqualification of 100 meters champion Ben Johnson at the 1988 Seoul Summer Games for steroid use.
"It's a bit like deja vu and a nightmare all over again," acknowledged Letheren, a veteran of the Seoul Games. "But this is a different situation and there's really no comparison."