Olympian Willie Banks
Olympian Willie Banks continues to compete in track and field in his late 50s. Photo by Ken Stone

Olympian Willie Banks says a recent decision by leaders of track and field’s national governing body was “totally unforgivable.”

Banks, a Carlsbad resident and former world record holder in the triple jump, was a member of the USA Track & Field Board of Directors for six years until his term expired in October.

On Monday, he joined the debate over the board’s decision — at USATF’s annual meeting in December — to reject a decision of delegates.

Olympian Willie Banks continues to compete in track and field in his late 50s. Photo by Ken Stone
Olympian Willie Banks continues to compete in track and field in his late 50s. Photo by Ken Stone

By a 392-70 vote, members meeting in Anaheim chose veteran track official Bob Hersh to be the U.S. nominee to the IAAF Council, which oversees world athletics, as track is known. Hersh, who turned 75 last week, has held that role for 16 years.

But the USATF board on Dec. 5 instead voted 11-1 to nominate USATF President Stephanie Hightower, a one-time NCAA champion hurdler.

“That’s not a slap to the face of most respected man in USATF’s hierarchy — that’s a shotgun to the temple,” said one critic, reflecting a firestorm of outrage on track message boards and athlete blogs.

The reversal “is nothing more than Fascist Dictatorship at its ugliest!” wrote another. “For shame, USATF, for shame!”

Sportswriters and others called for Hightower’s removal or resignation.

USATF issued a board statement defending the move — which brought a detailed rebuttal by Hersh on Feb. 12.

“We take the vote of our membership very seriously and respect it,” USATF board vice chair Steve Miller said in the original news release. “With [IAAF] President [Lamine] Diack leaving the organization, there will be significant, structural change at the IAAF – with their leadership, with their direction, vision and politics. Stephanie is a new-era person.

IAAF Vice President Bob Hersh. Photo via Wikimedia Commons
IAAF Vice President Bob Hersh. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

“Bob has served the organization well at the IAAF. But this is a different era and a different time. We think she provides us with the best chance to move forward.”

In his 1,400-word rebuttal, Hersh responded to what he called “many incorrect and/or misleading statements.”

“For reasons that I will explain to the board, the change in the IAAF presidency makes this the worst time for us to replace an incumbent vice president,” Hersh wrote. “I also believe that removing me from that position would be perceived negatively by the IAAF community.”

No member of the board responded to Times of San Diego’s request for further comment.

But Banks did.

On Monday, the former Oceanside High School and UCLA star said via email: “I have always tried to listen to the constituency before I voted. In this case I believe I would have voted for Bob Hersh (granted, I was not in the room to hear the arguments, pro and con). This is no secret to my friends on the Board of Directors, I’m sure.”

Banks, a member of the USATF Hall of Fame, told Times of San Diego that leadership should know all the facts and make decisions that are best for the organization.

“That being said, I believe the best leaders provide enough information and rally public opinion to their side,” he wrote. “Making decisions that are not transparent and well-vetted leads to distrust and anger. This is totally unforgivable for leaders of any organization.”

USATF, through spokeswoman Jill Geer, declined to comment on Banks’ remarks.

USATF President Stephanie Hightower. Image via iaaf.org
USATF President Stephanie Hightower. Image via iaaf.org

But David Greifinger, a Santa Monica-based attorney who was legal counsel to the USATF board from 1996 to 2008, said Banks’ comments were notable since they reveal “that the current board is totally detached from and dismissive of the membership it is supposed to serve. … I think [the comments] are important, to contrast the way the board should be operating from the way it is.

“I am not surprised at the silence. Everything of significance takes place in executive session with no communication with the membership. This board has closed itself off.”

Becca Gillespy Peter of Washington state, a meet director and USATF activist who operates a pole vault website, told Times of San Diego: “This is what I would have expected from Willie. He is awesome and the board is much worse off without him.”

At least five local USATF chapters (out of 57), including Southern California (which doesn’t include San Diego), have called on the board to reverse its decision.

But several athletes have voiced support for the board action, including Olympic 400-meter champion Sanya Richards Ross, who said in a blog post Monday:

Yes, we overwhelming selected Bob to return to the IAAF council seat, but do most athletes know why? I would dare say, our board of directors is better equipped to know who represents our interests. Our board is diverse! I know Jackie Joyner-Kersee, Doc Patton, and independent representatives like Eve Wright are sincere in their efforts to advance the sport and as volunteers have nothing to gain. The 12 members of the board got to hear from both Bob Hersh and Stephanie Hightower and voted 11-1 that Stephanie was the best fit. What athletes should be fighting for is more information, opportunities to be better equipped to advise our leaders, but I don’t believe our fight should be with the board of directors.

In the 11-1 vote to nominate Hightower, 56, the only dissenter was three-time Olympic race walker Curt Clausen. Hightower was first elected president in 2008. She handily won re-election in 2012. Due to term limits, she’ll step down in late 2016.

For his part, Greifinger is seeking another board vote, aiming to change its stance on the IAAF nominee. Hersh had risen to the post of senior vice president of the International Association of Athletics Federations, and many observers doubt Hightower would win that title, even if she’s elected to the IAAF Council in August.

“The board can answer to the membership by rescinding its action,” Greifinger said in a widely read column. “Under Robert’s Rules of Order, any board member may make the motion.”

Greifinger noted Tuesday that the board will meet March 14 in Los Angeles in conjunction with L.A. Marathon weekend — “plenty of time before the May 18, 2015, deadline to submit nominations to the IAAF.”

Banks, 58, said that he learned long ago “that all people want to know is that their leaders and representatives listened to their issues and tried to address their issues with genuine concern and compassion before making a decision that affects them.”

He concluded: “If the process has been done in an atmosphere of trust and respect, the final decision is of little consequence because everyone already knows the way the vote will fall. That is how we keep a strong organization.”

Updated at 10:40 a.m. Feb. 18, 2015