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VANCOUVER, British Columbia (Reuters) - A Canadian snowboarder who nearly lost his Olympic gold medal in a marijuana controversy has come to the defense of U.S. Olympic swimming champion Michael Phelps, who has also found himself in a pot-related squabble.
Ross Rebagliati said on Wednesday he is not surprised by the controversy that erupted after a photograph was published that purports to show Phelps smoking marijuana, but said the public and media need to put the incident in context.
"I think Michael Phelps is an incredibly talented athlete and it's a shame the media is choosing to focus and scrutinize one photo taken months ago at a private college party. The guy has 14 Olympic medals," Rebagliati said.
The photograph was reported to have been taken in November at a student party at the University of South Carolina and was published by Britain's News of the World. The newspaper did not say Phelps was smoking pot, but said that the glass pipe he was holding is generally used for smoking marijuana.
"It would be a different situation if Phelps were smoking a bong at Disneyland in front of children, or promoting it out in public. That is not what happened," Rebagliati's said in an e-mail to Reuters.
The Canadian's gold medal in the 1998 Games in Nagano, Japan, the first awarded in an Olympics for snowboarding, was initially stripped from him when he tested positive for marijuana. It was later returned because the drug was not then a banned Olympic substance.
Rebagliati denied smoking marijuana, but said he may have inhaled it as second-hand smoke at a pre-Olympics party in Whistler, British Columbia, where he trained. Whistler will host alpine events during the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver.
Phelps apologized this week after publication of the photograph on Sunday, describing his behavior as "inappropriate." The International Olympic Committee has said it accepted the apology.
"I think marijuana is less taboo than it was back in 1998 when my incident occurred," Rebagliati said. It definitely is not a performance enhancing substance. I personally think it is safer than alcohol and cigarettes."
He said he hopes the incident does not hurt Phelps' ability to market his Olympic success through lucrative endorsement deals. Brands such as Speedo and Omega have said they have no plans to drop Phelps from their marketing campaigns.
Rebagliati said that people who are attacking the swimmer's conduct should not forget how hard Phelps had to train to win his record number of Olympic medals.
"I guarantee, even with that one bong hit, Phelps is 100 percent healthier than the average human being," he said.
Reporting Allan Dowd, editing by Rob Wilson