Witold Bańka Is WADA Boss: Who Is He & What Can We Expect On His Watch?

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Witold Bańka - Photo Courtesy: WADA

Witold Bańka was minus-4 when Moscow held its boycotted Olympic Games in 1980 and the GDR was sinking the hopes of most in the pool but then again, if you’re going to be head of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) at 35, you’re going to need a sense of history before your time.

Bańka, born after boycotted Los Angeles 1984 had waved farewell to the worldtakes the top seat at WADA on January 1, 2020, as one of the youngest heads of any global institution. The appointment of the Polish Sports Minister (2015-October 2019) was confirmed today in his home nation, at Katowice, site of WADA’s 5th Conference on Doping in Sport.

He replaces Sir Craig Reedie (at 78 more than twice Bańka’s age) as president at a time when the voices of athletes and their representatives getting ever louder with a clear message: the anti-doping system is at breaking point, continues to give cheats the upper hand, penalties and handling of different athletes from different nations and different levels of sport are inconsistent and leniency for Code breakers too great.

Bańka, a former Polish 400m runner who has been Sports Minister in his country for the past four years, was the only candidate left standing in what is, under such circumstances, confirmatory nor revelatory.

A goods moment to ask: who is Witold Bańka; what does he want; and what is the backdrop to his entrance centre stage in the midst of a drama?

WADAAs an athlete, Witold Bańka made a brief appearance for Poland on the global stage: he raced in heats of the 4x400m at the 2007 World Athletics Championships in Osaka, and was granted bronze by teammates finishing third in the final. He was a strong runner over one lap, with a best of 46.11, but well back from the 43-44sec bracket where medals are won. As such, his elevation to WADA president marks his first leadership role on a global stage.

On January 1, Olympic year 2020, Bańka will take the helm of a regulator feeling the heat of tumultuous times: WADA is widely perceived as a would-be champion of clean sport held back by its lack of independence from the International Olympic Committee and a membership of international federations, such as FINA, that have long served in the incompatible roles of both promoter and policeman of sport.

That conflict of interest rests at the roots of a complex landscape of sport in which cheats have prospered knowing that the backlash from regulators leans more to leniency than the ‘zero-tolerance’ oft heard but seldom seen. Global Athlete and other representative bodies for sportsmen and women have called for “wholesale structural reform” of anti-doping regulation, including far greater transparency and independence.

Playing Russian Roulette

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Russia in focus – Photo Courtesy: SIPA, USA

The Russian doping crisis has led to WADA being seen as a wearer of two hats: good cop, taking on the tough questions on Russia, and bad cop suffering from a conflict of interest. The bottom line is one Russia has relied on, namely that neither WADA nor the IOC will keep “one of the most important countries in sport” (Sir Craig, 2018) out of the loop for long, no matter what comes to light.

In a recent speech to a LawAccord gathering in Australia, Sr Craig criticised those calling for Russia to be removed from the sports community until it complied and cooperated fully on investigations, truth seeking and then the processes aimed at building a clean-sport culture in a country that has clearly lacked that at the heart of its sports system.

The mission, said Sir Craig, must be to “rebuild and produce a robust [anti-doping] organisation in Russia. Failure to do that, in my view, runs the risk of them going back to the bad old days and starting to do what they did before. That doesn’t seem to do anything for clean sport and doesn’t protect athletes. A number of NADOs were thinking entirely on a political basis and not a practical basis.”

Critics see the merit in some of those words but also point out that the ultimate absence of the ultimate deterrent and a determination to see through a threat of removal in the event of non-compliance.

Russia’s part-penalty for Rio 2016 (track and field the sport that found the will, along a winding road of challenge to deep relationships long held, and courage to say ‘no, not on our watch’) and subsequent action against the country has led to another impasse.

WADA must soon decide what to do about an independent recommendation on the large block of anti-doping test data withheld by Russia in the first phase of investigation into allegations of systematic doping and then delivered by Russian authorities beyond a deadline to WADA back in January.

That data was then revealed to have been manipulated to sensational degree.

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Sir Craig Reedie – Photo Courtesy: WADA

Sir Craig drew both empathy and opprobrium for this comment: “We live in a political world and they are entitled to their views but my view, as President of the organisation, is to see through the logic, sensible and legal way of doing this. Look at the situation that has existed over the past 18 months to two years – the biggest political stand-off there has been for years.

“Diplomats are being dismissed, people are being hacked, in my country people were poisoned. WADA is just about the only organisation that has actually brought Russia to do what we wanted them to do. They are now behaving extremely well.”

The last sentence is the key. Sir Craig spoke those words a while before Russia out itself back in the dock, Yuri Ganus, the director general of RUSADA, among those joining the growing chorus of those calling for action as they point to manipulated data and attempts to bypass truth and justice.

Here is what Ganus had to say last month: “The changes to the data are so big and significant that it can’t be an accident. They aren’t stacks of data that have been deleted but they have been modified or back-dated in someways. Someone has tried massively to hide the information. It could also be a question of athletes names.”

Turn back the clock to the road to Rio 2016 and among waves of athletes at first banned from the Games were swimmers whose names were to be found on a list of cases open to question because of alleged manipulation of data.

Whether through any fault of the athlete or not, it was suggested at the time as though names had been changed on urine sample pertaining to swimmer A when they actually belonged to swimmer B. Those suggestions were dismissed, IOC, WADA and FINA were all party to decisions that left athletes with tainted images without anyone knowing whether that might be fair or not, that allowed all Russian swimmers back in for Rio 2016, some of that down to premature decisions taken by WADA when it came to research into meldonium and how long it could survive in the body.

Now, as 2019 draws to a close, WADA grapples yet with more than 2,200 historic samples retrieved from the IOC-accredited Moscow Laboratory and containing, it would seem, as much controversy as blood and urine can stand.

What is Bańka’s Beat Going To Do About It?

DopingFor the past four years, Witold Bańka has been Minister of Sport in Poland. He is a member of the national-populist PiS party and in that political role he has been linked to only one controversy, involving criticism from some quarters over his handling of pensions for members of former military personnel. In general, he’s seen as having been somewhat inconspicuous in the midst of an assertive government that has just been returned to power but barely retained its majority in the Sejm (the lower house of the Polish Parliament) and lost its majority in the Senate (the upper house).

When it came to positioning himself for the WADA presidency, Bańka did not stand out as a man voicing strong opinions on doping issues. The Norwegian candidate Linda Helleland was clearer on that score and the fact that she did not win the candidacy prompted some observers to conclude that Bańka is a sports politician who won’t rock the boat, who will go easy on the status quo.

Time will tell. What Bańka’s campaign did reveal was that he wants stricter sanctions and that he wants big budget increases and a a big push on investigators working with intelligence services to upturn cheats and the rogues in the shadows behind them. Actions will speak louder than words – and Russia is top of the agenda for those watching and wondering: what will Witold do about all that manipulated data?

A blanket ban from the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games is the ultimate penalty on the table. While that would be welcomed by athletes, anti-doping authorities and others around the world who have grown tired of and lost tolerance with a loop of long-term leniency, a ban will not deliver the revolution in Russian sport many in Russia (not to mention beyond the country) want to see and have been working for.

The Hawks Of A New Russian Ban

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Players in the Play The Game headlines (clockwise from top left) – whistleblowers Vitaly and Yulia Stepanov; Award winner Nancy Hogshead-Makar; Yury Ganus and Travis Tygart, heads of Rusada and Usada; and Dick Pound, of the IOC Photo Courtesy: Play the Game

Travis Tygart, the boss of the United States Anti-Doping Authority (USADA), followed up the recent PlayTheGame conference by telling WADA conference delegates:

“We can do more and we must do more. We cannot allow one country to steal medals. We must have a strong and independent WADA and not a weak service provider some have enjoyed in the last few years. Tokyo 2020 will be the fifth Games where state doping and not the athletes are the issue. When the microphones are on, we all express our support. But clean athletes want to know what happens when the mikes are gone. Are we still on their team? We can do better.”

In separate comments to the TASS news agency, Russian Sports Minister Pavel Kolobkov bypassed questions of what to do about a crisis beyond the individual athlete at the heart of a system and nation that even now in 2019 has a trail of manipulation on its hands and serious questions to answer. The minister simply said:

“If someone violates anti-doping rules, then of course this person should be punished. This rule should be applied to any athlete from any country.”

Well, of course, that is the case but the thought does not go nearly far enough nor does it answer such questions as “what happened to the two Russian teenager swimmers who tested positive for EPO in 2009 but were let off in return for information about the doctor and their cases never reported to WADA, all of that in contravention of the WADA Code?”

Witold Bańka: ‘We must eliminate doping’

esting, testing - but who will fund the efforts of anti-doping agencies at a time when the integrity of testing labs is called into qustion? doping

Testing, testing – the anti-doping system is being tested with every passing scandal

The new WADA boss told Deutsche Welle (DW) in a recent interview Bańka was asked about his personal experience of doping in sport and whether he had been confronted by its effects. He replied: “As an athlete I have always been disgusted by doping, but I’ve never delved into it much. I do know that I had to be careful with what medication I took. Every athlete has to know that can be banned substances in products such as flu medications. It important to make athletes aware of all the dangers and ensure they’re kept up-to-date so as to prevent them from making a big mistake out of ignorance.”

He claims that the work he did in Poland between 2015 and 2019 on anti-doping in a country that 20 years ago hosted secret teams of Chinese teens on training camps with coaches working on during periods of suspension, helped secure his election to the helm of WADA. Bańka told DW: “When I took office, our anti-doping rules deviated significantly from the latest WADA standards. I made amendments to the rules and brought them in line with the WADA code. Furthermore, I introduced an anti-doping law which numbers among the most effective in the world. I also significantly increased the budget dedicated to tackling the issue of doping.

“The Polish anti-doping agency, POLADA, now has the best technology at its disposal in its investigative department. We were a long way behind in the fight against doping and now we are a role model for other countries. Since then we’ve helped countries like Azerbaijan in reorganizing their own anti-doping campaigns. The Ukraine is also working closely with us. POLADA is now considered one of the world’s leading anti-doping agencies in terms of number of doping tests and powers.”

Bańka has set some goals for his time as WADA boss. They include “increasing the number of doping tests and bringing governance to “any ungoverned areas on the world map”. The latter is a subject that sparks passion in Bańka when he tells DW:

“There are still countries operating without anti-doping legislation or tests. Just look at Africa, where there are still too few tests done. We have almost 30 accredited anti-doping laboratories across the globe, but only one of those is in Africa, in South Africa. Many countries still have to send their samples to other continents. That costs a lot of money and that is a big problem that falls under WADA’s remit. In my election campaign I made constant references to the 2016 Summer Olympics. Roughly 10 percent of the medal winners came from countries with no or very weak anti-doping programs. This is a huge challenge facing WADA. One idea, for instance, would be to create a solidarity fund that would help support the battle against doping in Africa, by setting up further WADA accredited laboratories. We can also invest heavily in educating athletes as to how serious a crime doping is.”

WADA’s US$35-40 million budget is “very small” and “ridiculous”, says Bańka. A solidarity fund is proposed but as yet it is unclear who would contribute and how much.

In one of his last deliberations of his tenure as WADA president, Sir Craig noted, with a nod to where the money for the fight might come from: “The problem with the corporate world is WADA doesn’t provide the corporate world with any marketable benefits.” He recommended that Bańka reach out to those “who have access to government coffers”.

The irony in that will surely be lost on few, Russia one of the biggest spenders on venues and events organised by Olympic sports, the price to pay for such connections among questions when it comes to what constitutes a price too high to guarantee truly independent handling of anti-doping.

Bańka will take up his role as WADA head with a financial boost courtesy of the $10 million extra pledged for the organisation by the IOC. He will also know that even that is not enough to cover what he wants to achieve in the face of the lucrative dark market in banned products and all that flows from it, including the work of those involved in systematic doping programs, be those backed by a state or not.

Transparency and Taking The Fight Global

Asked by DW what he meant when he referred in his campaign to “increased transparency” for WADA, Bańka replied:

“I would like to improve the communication with the athletes, to disclose the decision-making processes within WADA. We need improved consultation with athletes when taking important decisions. Another important concern is the communication of knowledge to young athletes. They need to be informed about the consequences of doping and that clean sport is what we value the most.”

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Photo Courtesy: Italian Carabinieri with some of the products seized in Operation Viribus

He cites “Operation Viribus” as a good example of “effective cooperation between WADA and professional investigators”: WADA worked with EUROPOL to close down illegal laboratories producing steroids for sports use and to confiscate large amounts of doping substances. There was also “Operation Bloodletting”, in which athletes were caught cheating thanks to the cooperation between German and Austrian investigators.

Bańka does not mention that much of the headline grabbing work he cites stemmed from the work of investigative journalists.

Even so, he wants more investigative drives, telling DW:

“That is the future of anti-doping efforts. The battle against doping doesn’t just consist of more tests for athletes. Without the cooperation of investigators, we’ll never be capable of combating doping effectively.”

Bańka is saying many of the right things, telling the New York Times and other media, in these and so many words:

“I am not naïve, I am optimistic. We are forgetting it’s not fair on athletes from the United States, Britain, Poland or Germany which are from countries with strong anti-doping policies that they are competing with athletes from countries without controls.”

His parting shot when pressed on Russia was this:

“Please wait for the future decision. I need to remind you my term in office starts Jan. 1 next year. My attitude to this case and other cases regarding anti-doping will be very tough.”

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