David Owen

Montreal is experiencing a construction spree, as this sassy city emerges from the bitter Quebec winter.

The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) is in a rebuilding phase itself, with governance reforms in progress, the latest World Anti-Doping Code review nearing completion and, of course, a new leader – Witold Bańka – set to take the reins at the start of next year.

To stretch the analogy further, based on the meetings this week in the island-city on the Saint Lawrence that WADA calls home, the agency may just be starting to emerge from its own bitter winter, the long, Russian one which has loomed over it these past four-plus years.

This might seem an odd conclusion to draw after another week when the bullying allegations story has been high on the news agenda.

But having deployed the oft underrated weapon of transparency so as to enable anyone interested to make up their own mind about the nature and gravity of the alleged behaviours, I would be surprised if we hear too much more about this morale-sapping episode in months to come.

After a particularly gruelling period, moreover, the organisation’s perpetually-under-fire leadership appears to have made much progress in facing down its various tormentors.

The powers of endurance needed to fight one’s corner against entities as powerful as the International Olympic Committee (IOC), the Association of National Olympic Committees (ANOC), the United States anti-doping establishment and lord alone knows who in Russia ought not to be underestimated.

Sir Craig Reedie, Olivier Niggli, Günter Younger and their teams deserve more credit than they are usually given for not simply buckling in the face of any or all of these heavy hitters.

If there is a correlation between journalists in attendance and the likelihood of bad news – and there usually is – then you would be drawn to conclude from Montreal that WADA is indeed making headway.

Witold Bańka looks set to become the new leader of the World Anti-Doping Agency ©Getty Images
Witold Bańka looks set to become the new leader of the World Anti-Doping Agency ©Getty Images

Recent meetings, I was told, were attended by dozens of fellow media.

At the lunch offered to journalists during last Thursday’s board meeting, by contrast, I appeared to be the one and only customer for an impeccably black-waistcoated waiter, who was tending two otherwise empty 10 or 12-seater tables in a fairly imposing hotel dining room.

Of course, there remain jokers in the pack: the Rodchenkov Act and the unilateralist sentiments it enshrines being just one example.

However, whisper it softly, but if things continue in their present vein, Sir Craig’s successor might be able to focus on the actual fight against doping when he assumes the Presidency.

So, I was glad in Montreal to be able to conduct one of the first interviews with the young Polish Sport and Tourism Minister who is now all but sure from next year to be seeking to fill the Scot’s anti-doping shoes.

He is certainly fizzing with ideas – as befits a man who has just won a keenly-contested election.

Indeed, having had 24 hours to think about it, I would liken his manner to a young tech entrepreneur setting out how he intends to expand his business.

He is very conscious, like others before him, of the need to get more funding into the system if the fight against doping is to be prosecuted more effectively.

His mechanism for achieving this is an anti-doping solidarity fund to be financed by sponsors and other commercial entities with an interest in sport.

He tells me he would like to establish this “next year”.

When I gently raise one or two concerns – ‘Don’t commercial entities that provide money usually want something in return?’ – he both ripostes – “It should be totally independent; the management of this anti-doping solidarity fund should not decide its grants” – while also acknowledging that “this idea must be further discussed, and I am open to discussion”.

But, he concludes, “I think we should find some additional ways to bring more money to anti-doping policy”.

While I knew about his suggestion to increase the number of WADA-accredited laboratories worldwide, I was surprised at how extensive an expansion he appears to have in mind.

And I was left in no doubt that, while the enormity of the task in front of him probably has yet fully to sink in, he sees his chief goal as, in his words, “eradicate, eradicate the cheats from sport”.

He would like, he says, to “create a strong anti-doping policy and to change WADA step by step.

“I ask stakeholders, give me a chance,” he adds with commendable humility.

Two moments in particular from our first conversation will stay with me.

The first is when he volunteers that this is “like déjà vu”.

He elaborates: “When I started being a minister in 2015, I had a very similar situation because in Poland a lot of experts and media [said], ‘Ah, he is too young; there are a lot of problems in the Ministry; he will not handle the problems’.

“And I said, as an athlete, as a 400m runner, ‘Okay, you will see’.

“I worked very hard together with my team and we improved a lot of issues in Poland.

“For instance, when I started being a minister, our law according to the anti-doping policy was not adapted to the WADA rules…

Sir Craig Reedie is set to be replaced by Witold Bańka ©Getty Images
Sir Craig Reedie is set to be replaced by Witold Bańka ©Getty Images

“Decisions about punishments for athletes were taken by the sports federation, not some independent panel or body.

“I changed it: I decided to prepare a new comprehensive law combating doping in sport…

“I increased the budget for anti-doping policy four times.

“Now we have a Polish accredited laboratory [that is] totally independent…

“I think that was the reason why my colleagues from Europe and other continents trust me.

“It was real experience that is not about nothing…

“Let me be honest: our anti-doping system was weak – and I tightened it.”

The second moment is when, bearing in mind that he was an international-calibre 400m runner, I ask him if he had ever felt personally cheated by dopers.

The example he proceeds to outline concerns the Polish men’s 4x400m relay squad at the Seville World Championships in 1999.

This quartet finished second, but later had their silver medals upgraded to gold after the United States team was retrospectively disqualified.

Bańka used to train with that Polish squad as a “young boy”, so, he says, the episode affected him a great deal.

His next few sentences are delivered, it seemed to me, with particular feeling.

“Of course, they were awarded [the gold medal],” he concedes.

“But they didn’t have the possibility to hear the national anthem.

“This is the essence of sport.

“We cannot replace it, this moment.”

That degree of understanding should go down well with today’s athletes, whose support will be critical to WADA’s future credibility.

If events pan out as expected, Bańka will stop being Sports Minister later this year, when a conveniently-timed Polish parliamentary election is scheduled.

At the ripe old age of 34, he has already become – as his colleague pointed out as our interview drew to a close – the longest-serving Sports and Tourism Minister in Polish history.

His new task is immense and will at times, in all probability, frustrate him; but it would be a mistake, I feel, for anyone to underestimate Witold Bańka.