Willie Banks Is Doing His Part to Save Track and Field And He Needs Your Help
April 5, 2021
Former triple jump world record holder Willie Banks realized he wanted to be involved in the governance of the sport in 1980 when the United States boycotted the Moscow Olympics.
The next year, Banks had another realization. Track and field athletes needed to do more than just jump far; they needed to entertain. Banks was participating in a triple jump in Stockholm, Sweden, and the crowd was not into it. Before his first jump, he clapped his hands three times, and five drunken fans imitated him. At first Willie was annoyed, but by the end of the day, nearly the entire stadium was clapping for him and he came within a centimeter of his American record in the triple jump. The rhythmic clap we all take for granted was born.
Banks would go on to break the world record in the triple jump, get a law degree, consult with the group that started the Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathons, become a USATF Board Member, and become CEO of the World Beach Games.
Forty years later, athletics is less popular than it was, but Banks, 65, is in a position to try to do something about it. Banks is a member of the World Athletics Council and leading the World Plan Working Group, which has just launched a Global Conversation on the sport. The conversation is open to everyone: fans, Olympic athletes, amateur athletes, and media.
The idea is to gather data from around the world and, with the help of the Sports Business Group at Deloitte (the same group that was instrumental in the 2012 London Olympics), figure out the unique needs of the sport around the world. Then World Athletics will then come up with a World Plan for Athletics 2022-2030, which will be a roadmap for the growth of the sport through 2030.
Whether any of this will make a difference is yet to be determined, but when Banks heard World Athletics President Seb Coe talking to the Council about his vision, he knew he wanted to be a part of it. “This is what I always wanted to do is to help change our sport,” Banks told LetsRun.com.
Banks was so eager to get involved that he started texting Coe about wanting to be involved before Coe finished his presentation. “I truly believe that our sport needs a different focus and I want to be a part of this Seb, please. I’m begging. Give me this opportunity,” Banks said he told Coe.
Banks figured that Coe would tell Banks he was new to the World Athletics Council and needed to wait his turn, but instead Coe put Banks in charge of the World Plan Working Group.
Banks is now the administrator in the sport with power. He knows firsthand that administrators don’t always yield that power wisely.
In the ’80s, track and field entered the professional era, LA hosted the 1984 Olympics, there was a thriving indoor circuit in the US, and road running was taking off. In 1990, the US won the right to host the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. Athletics, especially in the US, had an amazing opportunity to build something big heading into this century. Instead it was squandered.
“And the reason why I think is because of the way we ran our sport,” Banks said. “One person could decide what they wanted to do… All of the things we could have done because he was afraid someone was going to take the authority away from him. I’m not going to mention names, but the key was we missed a lot of opportunities.”
(Editor’s note: While Banks won’t name names, we’ll try and name them. Ollan Cassell was head of what became USA Track and Field from 1970-1997. And to be fair, Primo Nebiolo was head of the IAAF from 1981-1999).