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TORONTO (Reuters) - After missing the 1996 and 2000 Olympics over failed drug tests, Canadian show jumper Eric Lamaze believes he is finally heading for his Olympic debut in Beijing.
Not bad for a 39-year-old who was once banned from equestrianism for life.
"It would be great," Lamaze told Reuters. "Being on any Canadian team is fantastic. We had a very strong Pan American (Games) team and I think we can put together a very strong Olympic team."
It seems the Montreal native is peaking at the right time for inclusion in the team. He amassed more than $1 million in prize money last year, some $600,000 of which was with his horse Hickstead, his targeted Olympic partner.
His recent successes have prompted many to suggest Lamaze could put the Canadian team in a competitive position in Beijing in August, as well as possibly take a medal in the individual events.
"He's having a top-of-the-line year. A fabulous year. He's an extremely talented rider. He has got the experience. He has got the drive and he has got the backing and has the horsepower," fellow rider Ian Millar, who has represented Canada in every Olympics since 1972 except for the Moscow boycott in 1980, said last year.
"The stars are all lined up for him and we all wish him success."
There was a time, however, when it appeared Lamaze's career was crashing to earth rather than taking off.
Lamaze first tested positive for cocaine in 1996 and was suspended from competition for four years, including during the Atlanta Games. This was later reduced to seven months after he successfully appealed against the penalty, arguing he had used the drug for personal, not performance-enhancing, reasons.
He was given a lifetime ban just before the 2000 Olympics in Sydney for consuming two banned substances found in cold remedies and a diet supplement. This ban was overturned after his lawyer argued that the items had not been properly labeled.
During the time he was banned he again tested positive for cocaine, which he admitted he had taken in a cigarette during a party, and was given a second lifetime ban.
He successfully appealed against that ban on the grounds that the drug was used at a time when he was under a lifetime ban and was therefore irrelevant.
Both times he tested positive for cocaine, Lamaze felt the heat from the media and the public and accepted the blame. He now refuses to discuss the indiscretions.
"The past is the past and I'm working toward the future," is all he will say about the incidents.
Although the four members of the Canadian line-up are not scheduled to be named until June 30, Lamaze is poised to be a key part of a team that did not qualify for the 2004 Games and saw only Millar compete in the individual classes.
"Obviously he's our top-ranked rider at the moment. It's a horse-rider combination but Eric and Hickstead at the moment would appear to be the linchpins of our team," said Terrence "Torchy" Millar, manager of the country's show-jumping team.
Despite Lamaze's past, the team manager said he would not hesitate to ask him to represent Canada.
"You can't predict anything in this world with what happens with people. I certainly wouldn't think there is any concern and it is certainly not on my radar. Eric has had a chance to change his life and I think he is very serious about his equestrian career," Torchy Millar said.
"Unless there is proof otherwise, why wouldn't you name your top rider?"
Canada's sports ethics watchdog would also have no opposition to his participation in the Olympics, noting that Lamaze served his sentence in the first case and had the sanction dropped in the second due to extenuating circumstances.
"Certainly from our perspective, Eric is an athlete in good standing with Equine Canada and the Canadian sport community," said Paul Melia, president and chief executive of the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport (CCES).
"He is an athlete that is eligible to compete within the sport and on behalf of Canada, although it is certainly not the CCES's decision as to who makes the Equine Canada team or who the COC (Canadian Olympic Committee) puts on the Canadian team, but he is certainly an athlete who is eligible to compete."
Editing by Sonia Oxley