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Raising the game for athletes of Ukraine — and the world

Olha Zavhorodnya is a name you likely have not heard before. From the small industrial town of Pryluky, about 100 miles east of Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, Zavhorodnya was a talented sprinter who competed in the same event as I, the 400-meter run. After retiring from international competition, her passion for sport — clean sport — inspired her work at the National Anti-Doping Organization of Ukraine, where she became the head of education. She was promoted to head of testing, responsible for coordinating doping controls of Ukrainian athletes, after a World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) investigation found her predecessor cheated on testing for years. 

When the Russian invasion of Ukraine began, and with her town under intense shelling, Zavhorodnya was able to board an evacuation train heading west, but not before she safely secured the remaining samples from the last testing of Ukrainian athletes so they could be removed later and analyzed at WADA-accredited laboratory. The Polish Anti-Doping Agency quickly arranged her safe passage to Warsaw, where she continues to work for Ukraine from her remote office. Her determination to protect clean sport and uphold the anti-doping system helps enable Ukrainian athletes to continue competing in international sporting events. Until Zavhorodnya can return to her native country and her family members there, she waits for a daily message from her mother and sister to let her know they survived another night. 

Apart from Zavhorodnya’s personal bravery and dedication, this story highlights what the world of anti-doping is all about — cooperation and solidarity. Led and coordinated by WADA, the global regulatory body, anti-doping efforts would not exist without the thousands of committed individuals in hundreds of countries.

Today, the world is in a precarious situation. As a result of Russia’s attack on Ukraine, war once again rages in Europe. WADA condemns this aggression and stands in solidarity with the Ukrainian people and its athletes.

Meanwhile, many Ukrainian athletes are still training and competing internationally and so, we must continue to support them and include them in the anti-doping process. WADA recently asked 19 national anti-doping organizations, in countries where elite Ukrainian athletes are now living, to include them in their testing plans. We asked them to fund sample collection and analysis as a gesture of goodwill, and to ensure the overall integrity of the system. I knew they would rise to that challenge. Of the 19 NADOs we contacted, all agreed to assist. In addition, International Sport Federations have agreed to test Ukrainian athletes. The response to our appeal shows, yet again, the fundamental strength of our system.

While the war continues, most Russian athletes are ineligible to participate in international sport. The Russian Anti-Doping Agency (RUSADA) remains noncompliant with the World Anti-Doping Code because of the Russian authorities’ brazen attempts to manipulate data from its Moscow laboratory in an effort to thwart WADA’s investigations. But it is important that we keep an open line of communication with RUSADA to discuss operational matters and oversee its activities. We want to ensure that the war does not give a free pass to cheats. We also must continue to monitor RUSADA in accordance with the noncompliance ruling issued by the Court of Arbitration for Sport in December 2020.

The war in Ukraine is a tragedy. Yet it has brought out the best in the global anti-doping community. We stand united with athletes and clean sport colleagues from Ukraine. Last month, for the first time in three years because of the COVID-19 pandemic, WADA held its annual symposium for the clean sport community, featuring a varied agenda of 25 sessions addressing subjects such as athlete empowerment, scientific innovation, governance reforms, values-based education, and intelligence and investigations. For me, the highlight was the simple coming together — in person and virtually — of close to 1,000 people from all over the world under the conference theme of “Raising the Game.”

Clean sport is all about solidarity, unity, partnership. Without the commitment and dedication of every stakeholder group, our diverse anti-doping community simply cannot achieve its mission. We work tirelessly together to protect the integrity of sport worldwide.

More than two decades ago, the United States helped create WADA so that athletes from all over the globe would compete on a level playing field, with one set of anti-doping standards. As Poland’s former Minister of Sport, and now as WADA president, I know firsthand how critical U.S. leadership and engagement has been to protecting fair sport around the world. In particular, the Office of National Drug Control Policy and its director, Dr. Rahul Gupta, have provided ongoing support of WADA’s clean sport mission. 

As the global anti-doping system responds to the consequences caused by the Russian war against Ukraine, WADA and athletes everywhere will benefit from the unified foundation that has been set. Further inspired by Olha Zavhorodnya and many more of her compatriots, WADA is determined to deliver on its priorities, with our partners in Washington and around the globe.

Sport can represent everything that is pure and good. It builds communities, promotes tolerance and fosters respect — for teammates, for opponents, for ourselves. In this way, sport may be one of the best teachers for youths, but only clean sport. It is up to all of us to do everything we can to protect it.

Witold Bańka is president of the World Anti-Doping Agency. He is a former Minister of Sport and Tourism, Poland, who authored the country’s bill on the Fight Against Doping in Sport, and was an elite runner who represented Poland internationally from 2005-2012. Follow him on Twitter @WitoldBanka.

Tags Russian invasion of Ukraine Sports World Anti-Doping Agency

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