Witold Bańka: I will never let WADA become part of the political game (interview)

“It seems to be that, if two strong powers, like the U.S. and Russia, are criticizing us equally, then it may be the best evidence that WADA is an independent organization and can respond to that criticism,” says Bańka. Andrzej Grygiel/PAP

"I will never let WADA become part of the political game," Witold Bańka, President of the World Anti-Doping Agency, emphasized in an interview with PAP. At the end of June, the U.S. Congress received a report criticizing WADA, including for being slow in its actions against Russia.

Polish Press Agency: When did you find out that the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) would be drafting a report on WADA?

Witold Bańka: On June 12 I had a very good meeting with the ONDCP Director, James Carroll. It was really constructive. We discussed strengthening cooperation with the White House in the fight against doping in sport. At that time, I was also informed that the report was being drafted. However, we did not expect it to take such a shape and, to put it mildly, that it would be so unpleasant towards WADA. There was no openness to consult WADA on elements in the report. Only three paragraphs were sent to us for review, and ultimately our suggested amendments were not included.

PAP: WADA's response was a counter report ...

W.B.: We had to show the U.S. Congress that the ONDCP’s report is full of inaccuracies and errors. It outlines some expectations towards WADA to take concrete actions, part of which does not even fall within WADA’s accountability. This completely undermines the credibility of the report.

PAP: But you don’t think that the ONDCP is the driving force behind this attack, do you?

W.B.: A few people know what motivates this report. Some time ago, the Congress decided that the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency’s (USADA’s) budget and the U.S. financial contribution to WADA were in one envelope. This therefore may indicate that this report is an attempt by USADA to raise more funds for its activities at the expense of WADA. We know that USADA was heavily consulted in the drafting of this report.

PAP: Why such an assertion?

W.B.: There are reasons for this. A few weeks ago, James Carroll voted for WADA's Strategic Plan for 2020-24. It means he has approved the direction in which WADA should be moving forward, while USADA has long criticized WADA, which is not a secret.

PAP: In the report, the U.S. side expects structural changes in the functioning of WADA and threatens to withdraw funding from the agency. As the largest contributor, they demand, among others, greater impact on WADA’s operations...

W.B.: No international organization makes sitting within its governing bodies conditional on the amounts paid to it. This is undemocratic. Control of WADA is not for sale. Agreeing to such scheme, would lead to a situation in which a huge number of countries would be excluded from the possibility of deciding on the global anti-doping system, and from sitting on the WADA board. The entire African continent would be out. If WADA were to follow the request being made in the report... Russia would have a seat on its Board. I don’t think this is what the U.S. want to achieve.

PAP: But maybe the United States deserve this importance in the fight against doping in sport and a seat on the Executive Committee? It is a country with huge sports potential, with many successes...

W.B.: No one is denying the United States successes in sports or a huge commitment to the fight against doping in sport. It is a great sports nation with great traditions. However, the decision to become a member of WADA’s governance bodies cannot be made conditional on either finances or sporting achievements of the country. WADA is a global organization whose name reflects its universal nature. Also, when it comes to the presence of the United States in our governance bodies, James Carroll, who I mentioned previously, represents the U.S. on our Board -- on which Americans have been incessantly sat from the beginning of WADA in 1999. The American Sports Council (CADE) is the organisation that makes the decision on the membership on the Executive Committee for the Americas; and, the U.S. chose not to participate in its last meeting where the question was discussed. It should be remembered that it is not WADA but governments and the sports movement deciding about their representation at WADA. In this case, the governments of the Americas region have decided so and not otherwise.

- I also appreciate the involvement of the U.S. authorities in the fight against doping, it is a wonderful partner of clean sport. Let us be aware, however, that even the U.S. are facing serious problems. Let me remind you that the major professional leagues such as the NFL, NHL or NBA are not Signatories to the World Anti-Doping Code. The same applies to the academic sports (NCAA). I believe that this is a loss not only for clean sport, but also for the U.S. athletes themselves who should have the right to demonstrate their integrity and be protected.

PAP: In addition to the economic motivation of USADA you mentioned, why else would someone undermine the authority of WADA?

W.B.: I don't want to speculate on motives. However, I have the impression that USADA would like to take control of the global anti-doping system. This entire report is an attempt to undermine WADA as a global regulator for anti-doping by framing WADA as an organization that’s allegedly not up to the task.

PAP: Are the efforts regarding the so-called Rodchenkov Act part of this attempt to take control? It has already passed through the House of Representatives and is about to be voted by the Senate...

W.B.: At the outset, I want to highlight one thing - WADA is generally not opposed to this act. We support all government actions that are aimed at strengthening the fight against doping in sport. Our concern, as well as most of the governments and the sports movement, is the extraterritoriality clause included in this Act. It gives Americans, among others, the possibility of suing people involved in doping scandals outside the U.S. It also undermines the ability of protecting whistleblowers, which are vital to WADA investigations. We are ready for discussion; I have already invited the representatives of the Congress to the meeting of the WADA Executive Committee to talk. What if other governments introduce similar solutions in retaliation? This would cause much confusion and disharmony. Interestingly, Grigory Rodchenkov himself, whose name is associated with this act, probably would never have come forward as a whistleblower, if he knew that another country, which adopted such a retaliatory law, may put him in prison for it. Protecting whistleblowers and informants is very important to us.

PAP: Last year WADA celebrated its 20th anniversary, but it has only recently been seen as a significant institution...

W.B.: WADA is in a completely different place than it was a few years ago. We now have a robust compliance monitoring mechanism and sanctioning tools based on new legal provisions. In this regard, we are much stronger. This is a big evolution. WADA is obviously not a perfect organization. But only those who do nothing make no mistakes. We are moving forward and constantly reforming. Soon there will be two independent members on the Executive Committee. One of them could be American. While the ONDCP report says that WADA should have U.S. presence on the Executive Committee, no candidacy has been put forward from this country.

PAP: In that case, are you able to identify any critical elements of the report that are confirmed in reality?

W.B.: What I think WADA should improve and is currently improving is its communication. We need to better communicate our decisions, explain procedures to the athletes, journalists, simplify the whole environment. Our way of responding to the ONDCP report is an example of a good communication. It is a proof that we are not afraid to be transparent, we have nothing to hide.

PAP: The most spectacular example of bad communication was the sudden WADA Executive Committee decision in 2018 to reinstate the Russian Anti-Doping Agency (RUSADA). It caused a shock to many athletes ...

W.B.: It is true; however, time has shown that it was the right decision. Thanks to the decision, it was finally possible to obtain samples and data from the Moscow anti-doping laboratory. Although the re-analysis of these samples is still ongoing, we already have samples of more than 50 athletes in which prohibited substances have been detected and whose disqualifications can be expected. In addition, data from the Moscow laboratory, which we would not have obtained without the RUSADA reinstatement decision, allowed us to prepare 298 case packages that we have handed over to the relevant anti-doping organizations to take further steps against these athletes, if possible. Finally, without this decision, there would be no RUSADA non-compliance case that is currently being reviewed by the Court of Arbitration for Sport in Lausanne (CAS). As you can see, it was a difficult decision, maybe controversial at the time, but good. However, there was not enough explanation on what it could bring.

PAP: Would it be painful for WADA to meet the U.S. threat of drastic reduction of funds contributed to the WADA budget?

W.B.: I am full of hope that this will not happen. As soon as the borders are opened, I will be ready to take advantage of James Carroll's invitation, to meet him and talk constructively. We should look for the enemy somewhere else. In the fight against doping in sport, WADA needs the United States, and they need us. I am ready for good cooperation and I am convinced that it will happen sooner or later.

PAP: What worries you in the context of the global fight against doping?

W.B.: We are not discussing enough how to help countries that have less-developed anti-doping systems. How to strengthen these systems, how to increase the number of doping controls. When campaigning for the presidency, I noticed that almost 10 percent of the medallists of the Rio de Janeiro Games were from countries that either did not have an anti-doping system or where it was very weak.

PAP: Even as the Minister of Sport, you said that some sports associations are steeped in political struggle. It turns out that in the world of anti-doping it is similar...

W.B.: I will never let WADA become part of the political game. I agreed to hold this position as a president who is to serve the athletes and to strengthen the anti-doping system. I intend to focus on this. I will not let WADA be played by the stakeholders. There is no room for politics in this business. It seems to be that, if two strong powers, like the U.S. and Russia, are criticizing us equally, then it may be the best evidence that WADA is an independent organization and can respond to that criticism.