Dealing a body blow to the Olympics' newest and most rebellious sport, the governing board of the Winter Games stripped a Canadian snowboarding champion of his 3-day-old gold medal Tuesday after drug tests turned up trace amounts of marijuana in his system.
Canada's olympic association immediately appealed the International Olympic Committee's decision, blaming secondhand smoke and saying snowboarder Ross Rebagliati pledged he hadn't used marijuana since April 1997.
Rebagliati, 26, who won the first-ever Olympic gold medal for snowboarding in the men's giant slalom Sunday, became the first athlete to test positive for drugs at the Nagano Games. Officials said they could not recall another Olympic case involving marijuana.
In a statement read by a teammate a news conference this afternoon, he maintained his innocence. "I've been training for 11 years to be the best snowboarder in the world," he said. "I've worked too hard to let this slip through my fingers."
The Rebagliati revelation threatens to undermine snowboarding just as its Olympic medal debut and Visa's recent sponsorship lend the Gen-X sport legitimacy beyond the world of Mountain Dew commercials, ESPN2 features and "dude"-laden speech, where it has existed for the past decade.
"This will undoubtedly be tough for the sport," said Carol Anne Letheren, the Canadian association's chief. "There's always great sadness and embarrassment."
Only four positive drug tests have ever been recorded at the Winter Olympics -- two at Innsbruck in 1976, one in Sarajevo in 1984 and one in Calgary in 1988. For Canada, this is also sadly reminiscent of Seoul in Summer 1988, when Toronto sprinter Ben Johnson lost his gold medal and world record for using the anabolic steroid stanozolol.
IOC officials said no gold medalist since Johnson has been disqualified for drug use. And no gold medalist was ever disqualified for drugs before 1988, when several weightlifting champions were banned for steroid use just days before Johnson's disqualification.
Letheren said Rebagliati told officials the positive test was due to "the significant amount of time that Ross spends in an environment where he is exposed to marijuana." She said a severe reprimand would have been more appropriate than taking back his medal.
IOC Director General Francois Carrard said the first part of the two-part drug test found traces of metabolized marijuana in Rebagliati's urine. The second part turned up more signs of marijuana use - 17.8 nanograms per milliliter, Carrard said. That meant Rebagliati, a British Columbian whose triumph was celebrated throughout Canada, was out in the narrowest of votes.
"It is always sad to be facing such a situation," Carrard said. "It was not an easy decision to take."
He refused to go into detail about the decision-making process, citing Canada's appeal. But he did say the IOC board vote was 3-2, with two members abstaiing. The medical commission vote was 13-12 in favor of recommending action to the IOC governing body.
The IOC also could have reprimanded Rebagliati but allowed him to keep his medal.
"It was an unusually close decision," Carrard said.
International Ski Federation rules allow 15 nanograms per milliliter; the IOC allows none. The fact that Rebagliati's levels tested above 15 "did have a certain influence on the debate," Carrard said.
The Committee for the Arbitration of Sport, which must rule within 24 hours, has overturned drug cases before.
Carrard said he had no indication Rebagliati used the drug in Japan. But Kyodo News reported that police from Nagano prefecture, or province, will ask the IOC for Rebagliati's test results. A marijuana possession conviction in Japan carries up to seven years in prison.
Rebagliati, who dedicated his Olympic medal to a friend killed in an avalanche, said after winning the gold that he realized his sport had reached Olympic status when drug testers began appearing at meets. He said performance-enhancing drugs "were not part of our sport."
But though 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."
And Rob Roy, a coach for the U.S. snowboarding team, said the sport was "striving for legitimacy" and could be hurt by what happened today.
"I think the public sort of looks at this and thinks, `Ah -- snowboarders are all wild and crazy," he said. "That's not good."
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," Carrard said.
Other substances banned by the IOC include alcohol, caffeine, local anesthetics and performance-enhancing steroids. Though marijuana is not traditionally considered performance-enhancing, Carrard said he had been "told that in some situations, it could be."
In another drug case, U.S. bobsledder Michael Dionne was pulled from the Olympic team after his drug suspension was upheld but was urged to stay in Nagano because he was guilty only of "carelessness." Dionne said he took the banned stimulant ephedrine accidentally in cold medicine.