Witold Banka, the WADA chief
Witold Banka, the WADA chief Image Credit: AFP

Dubai: Professional athletes across the globe have pressed the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) for proper reforms to further clean out the sport for the benefit of all.

Signed by a handful of athlete bodies including the newly formed Athletics Association; AthletesCAN (Canada), Athleten Deutschland (Germany), Danish Olympic Committee Athlete Commission, United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee Athlete Advisory Council, and Global Athlete, a joint statement has insisted on “proper reforms” to the sport.

“Time after time, athletes’ calls for change have been cast aside or written off as misinformed, despite the fact that athletes are the primary stakeholders and by far the most impacted group when the status quo persists. As educated, informed and united athlete representatives, we will continue to push for the needed reform,” the statement said.

Suggesting a minimum set of changes that the athletes believe can act as a starting point, the call for reform and change is based on four vital principles, namely independence, transparency, accountability and basic human rights.

The athletes have called for funding to be decoupled from decision-making with WADA creating a more independent structure free of real or perceived conflicts of interest. Further, the WADA Executive Committee must be recruited based on skills and its representatives must be completely independent, and this has to include equal independent active athlete representation.

As per the current status, and despite denials to the contrary, WADA’s leadership is represented in proportion to financial contributions, and influenced by lobbying by member states.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) pays 50 per cent of WADA’s budget and holds 50 per cent of the vote. Governments also pay 50 per cent and hold an equal weightage of the vote.

In a letter dated June 26, 2020 to James Carroll, WADA’s President Witold Banka has admitted to the fact that allocation of seats is done “exclusively to the highest funders” thereby eliminating a majority of nations from ever holding a seat on WADA’s Board or Executive Committee. “The ultimate consequence is that this practice excludes and alienates the primary stakeholders, namely the athletes,” the statement noted.

In terms of transparency, the athletes have stressed that WADA investigations must have detailed terms of reference with a clear requirement for public reporting. The Independent Commission Report led by Richard Pound and the Independent Person’s Report led by Richard McLaren serve as examples of the transparency athletes expect.

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WADA HQ in Quebec

“All athlete sanctions are made public, and therefore all investigations and their respective outcomes must be public as well. Athletes cannot be held to a higher standard than WADA stakeholders,” the statement related.

“Stakeholder compliance decisions must be made by the WADA Foundation Board instead of the WADA Executive Committee. This change is essential for athletes to have trust in the system,” it has added.

Over the past several years, athletes have been demanding more transparency from WADA and its process of decision-making. These calls have followed repeated unexplained actions on the part of WADA in the face of harm to clean athletes, despite repeated cries from the athlete community which has gone unanswered so far.

Specifically, WADA disregarded calls for ‘No U-turn’ on Russia’s non-compliance in September 2018 and for strong action to be taken against the Bucharest Laboratory and the Romanian National Anti-Doping Agency following corrupt actions and cover-ups.

“Athletes have taken notice of the ‘code of silence’ and major decisions being made behind closed doors that undermine every athlete’s right to an equal, fair, and transparent system,” the statement has observed.

Yet another vital principle of change suggested is that athletes must have the same number of seats as the IOC and governments of the world for an independent and equal seat around all decision-making tables.

“WADA can no longer self-regulate. Athletes demand accountability for decisions rendered at the highest levels of sport administration. WADA Board members and personnel cannot have divided loyalties and conflicts of interest, because WADA cannot be regulated by the sporting movement or any individual government, they must be accountable to athletes,” the statement insisted.

The athletes have asked WADA to “walk the talk” with regards to athletes’ human rights. “WADA cannot claim to respect the human rights of athletes with the existence of several problematic articles within the 2021 World Anti-Doping Code. WADA must conduct, through independent athlete consultation, a thorough human rights review and impact assessment,” the statement suggested.

“At a minimum, the Athlete Rights Anti-Doping Act, including the ‘Recommended Rights’ must be incorporated into the Code, and made mandatory and legally binding for all Code signatories. Moreover, there must be an embedded separation of power between the legislative, executive and judicial functions of WADA and the anti-doping system to ensure an effective and fair system of justice.”

The joint statement from athletes has finally assured all stakeholders that they will continue to push for change. “We will no longer remain silent and we will use our voice to bring truth to power. While we commend the work that has been done on harmonising doping globally, the governance of WADA and the status quo is no longer acceptable,” the statement said.

“We welcome an opportunity to discuss this statement and its proposed changes with WADA’s leadership at the highest level. To that end, on July 16, 2020, a meeting was requested with Mr Banka, who responded on July 22, indicating that he would be willing to have a larger athlete meeting in September 2020, which we look forward to participating in.”