Olympian Willie Banks
Olympian Willie Banks, president of the 2019 ANOC World Beach Games organizing group, speaks Japanese and has vast experience with international sports events. Photo by Ken Stone

In the 1980s, when triple jumper Willie Banks shined on the world stage, he had a USA teammate named Stephanie Hightower.

Both competed in the second IAAF world championships in Rome in 1987 — Hightower making the semifinals of the 100-meter hurdles and world-record holder Banks failing to make the finals in his event (after taking silver in 1983).

Thirty years later, they are fierce rivals for one of the most powerful roles in world sports — membership on the governing council of the International Association of Athletics Federations, with major clout in the Olympic movement.

Former USATF President Stephanie Hightower hopes to turn back a challenge as the American rep on the IAAF Council. Image via iaaf.org

Carlsbad resident Banks, 62, is challenging Hightower, 60, at the annual meeting of USA Track and Field in Columbus, Ohio. A former elected president of USATF, Hightower is an incumbent member of the 27-member IAAF Council who says she is seeking the vice presidency of the world track and field body.

If Banks prevails, he’ll avenge what many considered an injustice four years ago when delegates to the USATF annual meeting in Anaheim overwhelmingly voted to retain longtime IAAF Council member Bob Hersh but saw Hightower handed the IAAF role. The USATF board chose her over Hersh by a 11-1 vote.

In 2015, Banks condemned the USATF board decision to overturn the 392-70 vote backing Hersh. He called it “totally unforgivable.”

Hersh, it turns out, is one of 16 track leaders seconding Banks’ nomination by former Competitor Group executive Tracy Sundlun of Santee. (Among the 16 are San Diegans Paul Greer of the San Diego Track Club and Cuyamaca College coaches Tim Seaman and Thom Hunt.)

At this year’s convention — Nov. 28-Dec. 2 at the Hyatt Regency in Columbus — delegates will decide whether to give Hightower another four-year term as America’s IAAF representative or boost Banks, a former member of the USATF Board of Directors.

Should the Oceanside High School product win, he would have to be elected to the council by the IAAF Congress meeting at the 2019 IAAF World Championships in Doha, Qatar.

But odds favor his elevation, given his experience as a two-time Olympian, role on the executive committee of the World Olympians Association — and being an American.

He’s also president and CEO of the group behind the 2019 ANOC World Beach Games in Mission Beach.

Vincent Mudd, chairman of the San Diego Local Organizing Committee for the October 2019 Beach Games, had no problem with Banks taking on more responsibility.

“I think it only helps what he’s doing in San Diego with AWBG,” Mudd said. “We have a big world to reach out to.”

The winner in Ohio automatically joins the USATF Board of Directors. (Hightower won’t have to travel far. She’s the president and CEO of the Columbus Urban League.)

Banks also is the lone candidate for the IAAF area association council called NACAC — North America, Central America and Caribbean. Hightower is its vice president but isn’t listed as a candidate.

Neither Banks nor Hightower immediately responded to requests for comment, but both summarize cases for election via statements of candidacy.

In a 374-word essay, Banks detailed his athletic and administrative history and said the IAAF and NACAC are “at a crossroads.”

“I believe I am uniquely qualified by both experience and temperament,” he said, “to assist our sport globally, while representing our U.S. athletes and interests with the universal goal to expand athlete’s competitive and financial opportunities in all disciplines, on the track and on the roads; to promote clean sport and support athletes’ rights; to grow youth and masters programs; and take our sport to the people through both track and field development programs, and road races in every city and town on every continent.”

In her 113-word statement, Hightower said: “I’m respectfully requesting USATF membership’s vote to continue as ‘your’ IAAF Council representative. … I hope to garner the highest number of IAAF Congress votes again in 2019 to help IAAF set policies, monitor performance indicators, mentor athletes for future leadership, and to help grow and innovate track & field into a new age.”

Becca Gillespy Peter of Washington state, a longtime USATF activist, said Thursday that she had spoken to Banks about his candidacy earlier in the day.

“I love that he is running!” she said via Facebook. “I think Willie Banks would be a fantastic person to represent USA Track & Field internationally. Willie has a proven track record of pushing for progress in our sport.”

Peter said she wasn’t acting as a consultant to Banks, but “he reached out to me to touch base about the campaign and everything.”

She said Vin Lananna, the Hall of Fame track coach and University of Oregon official who was put on “temporary administrative leave” last February as president of USATF, suggested that Banks talk to her.

“No one I have talked to knows what is going on with [Lananna’s] situation,” she said, “but I hope to find out soon.” (Lananna told Times of San Diego via email he was in Madison, Wisconsin, for the NCAA Division I Cross Country Championships but declined to comment.)

In any case, USATF bylaws have been changed to make it harder for the board to negate a convention vote.

“They cannot do that so easily this time,” Peter said.

Under new bylaws, the board may reject an IAAF Council nominee by a two-thirds vote of its total members “who are not personally conflicted if it finds that good cause exists to disqualify the individual.”

But the rejected nominee may appeal the board’s decision to the Swiss-based Court of Arbitration for Sport.

Said Peter: “It should be an exciting race.”