Witold Banka -- doping's poacher turned WADA gamekeeper

·3-min read

World Anti-Doping Agency president Witold Banka could be described as a poacher turned gamekeeper -- he began his term as Polish sports minister with a telling off from the organisation he now heads.

The 37-year-old former sprinter had not expected to be made a minister, telling AFP he received the call from then prime minister Beata Szydlo two hours before the official announcement of the government in 2015.

Banka was not even a candidate in the elections -- his contribution to the victory came through the PR agency he had founded after retiring as an athlete in 2012.

The former sprinter, who won a bronze medal in the 4x400 metres relay in 2007, had a rude awakening soon after accepting the post.

"It is very funny now but I received a letter from WADA saying our doping law was not in accordance with their code," he said on the sidelines of the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham.

"These guys gave me just three to four months to change the law otherwise our laboratory would lose its accreditation and the Rio Olympics (2016) were on the horizon.

"I was not happy with them and said 'come on' -- it was just before the holidays -- 'How can I pass a law in time?'

"I found a way to do it and it was passed a week before the deadline."

For Banka that proved to be a turning point as he absorbed what he described as the "immense pressure on my young shoulders" and decided on root-and-branch reform.

"I increased the budget three times, gave them special investigative powers," he said.

"I am proud to say Poland is regarded as one of the foremost anti-doping countries in the world in terms of its skills, knowledge, the budget and law."

Those sweeping reforms and measures gave Banka plenty of ammunition when he was elected to replace Craig Reedie as WADA chief in 2019.

"Now I am joking with the WADA team: 'Look how forgiving I am. Here I am working with you, especially those responsible for non-compliance'."

- 'Paradise for cheats' -

Banka, who says it is impossible to eliminate doping from sport, highlights WADA's function as "prosecutor and policeman" but also its role as an educator.

But he has little time for athletes' excuses that they were unaware they were taking a banned substance or those who are not available for out-of-competition testing.

"When I was an athlete I was known for being a constant caller to a Polish hotline as to whether cream I was taking for an injury was OK," he said.

"If you decide to be an athlete you have to be responsible for your career and that includes what you eat or drink, indeed for everything.

"I do not buy the arguments about their whereabouts -- 'Oh I did not have a network or I do not know how the whereabouts measure works'.

"Well, my reply is they had no problems at the same time of posting photos of where they are on Instagram or Twitter. It is not hard to send an email."

As Banka contemplates a second three-year term he says WADA is in a much better place than it was seven years ago.

He is proud that under his presidency testing has been ramped up and WADA has made governance reforms that ironed out differences with the US government.

He is also adamant that while lines of communication are open with Russia's anti-doping agency following the "state-sponsored doping scandal", they will not "get a free pass to cheat or to create a paradise for cheats".

Banka is about to go on a family holiday with his wife and three children but he confesses he finds it hard to compartmentalise his life.

"This is my weakness from a mental point of view, that I am working too hard and thinking too much," he said.

"I put that down to I am still quite young and feel the pressure and weight of responsibility more."

pi/jw

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