Snowboarding Highs and Lows

The Olympics always are about extremes, of highs and lows, alphas and omegas, zeniths and nadirs.

And that's why we love them. They take our emotions up like a ski jumper on the rise on the 120-meter hill and down like a figure skater at the end of a failed triple toe loop. Normally we don't like our emotions toyed with but in the Olympics, we seem to know that's just how it's going to be.

And so it is in this emotional hothouse with the furor over the Canadian snowboarding gold medallist, Ross Rebagliati, who just 45 minutes after his upset victory early in the week in the giant slalom, was snagged in a drug test that showed marijuana in his system. The Toronto Sun blared, "Gold medal gone to pot?" Canadian officials described Rebagliati as "very devastated."

Originally, Rebagliati's strong performance appealed to us because he was not even considered Canada's best; it appealed because Rebagliati threw in his best effort ever in his 11-year career and we applauded his perseverance.

Then this. It made us mad. No, not because it tarnished the image of the Olympics although it did - but the Games are used to it. Rather, we just couldn't imagine him devoting himself to becoming world class and then squandering it all so carelessly.

Rebagliati told Canadian authorities he had not had any marijuana in 10 months, which, it seems, we are supposed to applaud as good behavior. However, he does hang around a lot, he says, with marijuana users who smoke very strong stuff and so that's probably how it sneaked into his body. It's the secondhand dope defense. It seemed a cousin to the Bill Clinton defense: smoked but didn't inhale.

The International Olympic Committee stripped Rebagliati of the win, the medal, and his honor.

Then, slightly more than 24 hours later, following an appeal by the Canadian Olympic Association on behalf of its athlete, the Court of Arbitration for Sport announced it had overturned the IOC's medal-snatching move. The reasoning was that while the International Ski Federation lists marijuana as a prohibited substance, the IOC does not. And unless the overall governing body and the sport's federation have an agreement on a banned substance, then IOC regulations rule. There was, both parties agreed, no such agreement.

Jeers turn to cheers.

Carol Anne Letheren, head of the Canadian Olympic Association, said that when Rebagliati was informed of the decision, he "took the medal out of his pocket and put it on.'' One can only imagine his elation.

But this is a decision that gives pause.

After all, nobody disputes the test results that disclosed the presence of the drug. So, however it got there - even by prevailing winds or carrier pigeon - isn't the point. The point is how this plays on the world stage. Indeed, what message is sent to millions of youngsters who are thrilling this year to snowboarding's first appearance in the Olympics? After all, snowboarders pride themselves on individuality and many have made no secret of chafing at various Olympic rules - including what they must do to qualify for the Games. They make no secret that, given a choice, they prefer to live outside the lines of convention rather than inside.

Indeed, when Picabo Street, winner of the Super-G earlier this week, was asked about Rebagliati's situation, she rolled her eyes and said, "Well, snowboarders, you know." And that will be a cornerstone of ensuing discussions. Do we encourage what many consider bad social behavior or do we adjust because times have changed and the Olympics flat better catch up?

Perhaps snowboarders, given their counterculture bias, deserve a free pass on the marijuana issue.

It will be interesting how the public responds. And that will be a big part of what direction the Olympics take. Do we care if the snowboarders are level with cannabis when they perform their amazing tricks on the world's mountains? Maybe not.

The argument is made that marijuana, unlike steroids for example, is not a performance-enhancing drug; the point is made that it's a social drug, like alcohol. My oh my, what's a world to do?

Highs and lows. Zeniths and nadirs.

* Douglas S. Looney's e-mail address is looneyd@csps.com

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