Polish minister to lead WADA; outspoken candidate sidelined
MONTREAL (AP) — There was one key problem with the most high-profile candidate in the race to become the new president of the World Anti-Doping Agency: Her name wasn’t on the ballot.
A group of government representatives chose Polish sports minister Witold Banka to be WADA’s next president Tuesday, weeks after he mustered more votes among the critical European delegation than outspoken reform candidate Linda Helleland.
Helleland, a WADA vice president from Norway, had taken a number of unusual steps over the past several months, including strongly criticizing WADA for its response to the Russian doping scandal. She suggested a complete overhaul of the agency — one that would give a greater voice to athletes — was in order.
Even more unusual was that she openly lobbied to take over for Craig Reedie as president — announcing her candidacy with a bold media offensive in January, then working the hallways and court of public opinion to gather support.
“Being so clear and outspoken in my demands toward the establishment is not the best strategic way to succeed in international sport,” Helleland said Tuesday in a statement released to The Associated Press. “The forces you fight against do fear all the values I stand for.”
Helleland said she received the support of 16 European nations when they met earlier this year to choose that continent’s candidate. Most were presumably from the west side of the continent, but there were more votes elsewhere in support of Banka.
In the nominating process, each continent is entitled to forward one name. Absent support from Europe, Helleland needed a version of an Olympic miracle — namely, for another continent to make her its representative.
It didn’t happen, so the race was a two-man affair, between Banka and Marcos Diaz of the Dominican Republic. In an Olympic world in which Europe gets its way more often than not, Banka came out ahead.
“I give my warmest gratitude to colleague Banka, and look forward to cooperat(ing) with him in the best interest of WADA,” Helleland said. “Never before has a strong and independent WADA been more important. Never before has it been more important that WADA gets a strong and independent president.”
Banka, 34, is a sprinter who won the bronze medal at the 2007 world championships in the 4x400 meter relay. He has largely avoided discussion of the Russian case that has consumed WADA over the past four years, instead pressing for more funding for anti-doping labs across the globe to put countries on equal footing.
“We should have equal treatment for all countries. Russia, Poland, USA, all European countries should respect the rules,” Banka said in an interview this year.
US Anti-Doping Agency CEO Travis Tygart, who was in Helleland’s corner, said: “We appreciated the opportunity to have met with him recently and to discuss the hope for a strong and independent WADA going forward.”
Helleland was one of the two dissenting votes last year when WADA’s executive board decided to reinstate Russia’s banned anti-doping agency before it had turned over key data that was needed to pursue possible positives that stemmed from the country’s scheme to cheat and evade detection. WADA eventually got the data, and corresponding samples, and will receive updates on their status at meetings this week.
In an interview last September, Helleland said the message she was hearing from athletes was “They’re saying: ‘Hello, What are you doing? We’ve lost faith. We don’t believe in you anymore.’”
Her mission was to use that momentum to guide her run to the presidency, but she said when Tuesday arrived, she knew she didn’t have the support, and so, withdrew her candidacy.
“This was never about the position for me,” she said in her statement. “It was about values like good governance, transparency and protection of the athletes.”
Her term on WADA’s executive committee expires at the end of the year.
Banka is expected to be rubber-stamped as the new president at WADA’s meetings in November, and will take over for Reedie next year.