White House, WADA fight over anti-doping funding puts U.S. athletes in middle

“The consequences of a withdrawal of WADA funding by the U.S. could be more severe and far-reaching for American athletes,” Banka told Reuters, which first reported on the development Thursday.

At issue is a June report from the White House’s Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) that urged Congress to withdraw its funding if WADA fails to take on serious reform measures and give U.S. officials greater representation on its decision-making bodies.

President Trump’s drug policy office contends that the U.S. government is the single largest contributor to WADA, giving $2.7 million annually, and that “American taxpayers should receive a tangible return on their investment in WADA in the form of clean sport, fair play, effective administration of the world anti-doping system and a proportionate voice in WADA decision-making.”

Lawmakers haven’t publicly commented on the ONDCP report, but the funding threat sent shock waves through the international doping community this summer. Dick Pound, the WADA founder and the longest-serving IOC member, called it “inexplicable.” In a statement Friday, Banka said he “will never let clean athletes become hostages of political games.”

“This matter has been raised by some concerned Governments, not by WADA’s leadership, and as is the case with any proposal raised by a stakeholder, WADA has an obligation to consider it carefully,” Banka said. “We will examine the rules to see if they need to be strengthened in light of the current situation. As always, due process will be followed and this will be a matter for discussion and consultation.”

While Banka and WADA have previously rebuked the ONDCP report, this week’s warning was the first time the organization suggested American athletes might be negatively impacted.

“Their priorities are obviously backward,” Travis Tygart, chief executive of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency and an outspoken WADA critic, said in a telephone interview. “They’re threatening U.S. athletes not to compete without legal basis, yet allowing athletes from a Russian state-sponsored doping system to compete — we’re living in a twilight zone.”

“Nobody wants the money to be cut,” he continued, “but throwing good money after bad into WADA’s pocketbook makes no sense until reform is achieved that allows them to be a strong and independent regulator and not the political monster that they’ve become.”

The ONDCP provided a statement, attributed to an unnamed official, pushing back against WADA’s “threats.”

“ONDCP is committed to work with WADA to foster organizational reform that includes increased transparency and greater accountability to the nations like the United States that finance WADA’s operations,” the statement reads. “It’s a goal shared by athletes and athletic organizations around the world, and one that should be shared by WADA. Threats from WADA to exclude athletes from competition who train their entire lives for the privilege of engaging in Olympic sport does not advance these goals, and only reinforces the perception that WADA puts politics over players.”

While many international competitions have been canceled or postponed this year in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, the Olympics are scheduled to take place July 23 through August 8 next summer in Tokyo. Most American athletes have resumed their training.

“It is entirely inconsistent for WADA to threaten essentially a blanket ban of American athletes in this case,” Han Xiao, the chair of the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee’s Athletes’ Advisory Council, wrote in an email to The Post. “The bottom line is clean American athletes should not be punished for disagreements between institutions over governance reforms. Even the suggestion that it’s an option sets a terrible precedent.”

Sarah Hirshland, the chief executive of USOPC, sent a letter in July to James Carroll, the ONDCP director, expressing support for some pieces of the office’s report. But she made clear that WADA’s governance boards need “diversity and equity of representation” and said she is “concerned about any effort to reduce U.S. government funding to WADA that may undermine global anti-doping efforts and/or remove the role and authority of Congress to instruct decision-making authority over WADA funding.”

The ONDCP report had the backing of the USADA, which has been critical of WADA and its handling of the Russian doping scandal. If WADA follows through on passing an amendment, it would technically be finding USADA in noncompliance with the World Anti-Doping Code. And if the nation’s top anti-doping body was no longer recognized and sanctioned by WADA, American athletes would then have a difficult time demonstrating a clean record and gaining entry into major international competitions.

Jorge Leyva, chief executive of the Institute of National Anti-Doping Organizations, told Reuters such a scenario “would simply be a catastrophe for American athletes and the anti-doping system.”

While the ONDCP report demanded a stronger U.S. voice in WADA affairs, Banka and Pound have questioned the motives behind the report and the U.S. funding threat, arguing that the United States has always been well-represented on its committees and decision-making boards.

“In this critical time for anti-doping, we need unity, not division,” Banka said. “I still stand ready to work with the U.S. Government on this and I am hopeful that it will continue to contribute to the global anti-doping program. But what our stakeholders are telling us is that this episode has highlighted the need for more commitment and accountability within the clean sport community. The only way to preserve the global system is for everyone involved to stand united and work together to make it stronger.”

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