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

Carlsbad’s Willie Banks, having flown Thursday from Tokyo to Minneapolis to Columbus, Ohio, was on a high Saturday after being elected America’s candidate for the powerful IAAF Council — track and field’s top governing body.

“I’m kind of floating right now,” the two-time Olympian said by phone. “I don’t even know what time it is. It’s amazing.”

By a 391-217 vote, delegates to USA Track & Field’s annual meeting chose Banks, 62, over incumbent Stephanie Hightower, 60, and a resident of Columbus.

The former world record holder in the triple jump said delegates looked at his record of “helping athletes and being supportive of issues that people really cared about. That resonated with people.”

He also noted “missteps” by his opponent, former world-class hurdler Hightower. Those included “she really didn’t campaign that much.” And he said she publicly accused former IAAF Council member Bob Hersh of making “racially charged” comments when Hightower replaced Hersh in 2014.

“Most people who know Bob were like: ‘That can’t be true,’” Banks said.

(Becca Gillespy Peter posted on Facebook that Hightower, in a campaign speech Friday, “said something to the effect that Bob made a comment about how she would not get elected to the IAAF Council because she is an African-American female and he would because he is a white male.” Peter added: “Having been there, I am positive that he NEVER mentioned race in that context, and the minutes support me.”)

But Banks also was critical of USATF CEO Max Siegel, saying “Siegel [during his State of the Sport speech Thursday] got up in front of everyone at the opening ceremony and campaigned openly for Stephanie. … I think people came back with a bad taste in their mouth.”

Such an effort would be illegal under USATF bylaws, noted USATF spokeswoman Jill Geer.

Under those bylaws, no USATF employee may campaign for or against any USATF candidate “except that in the State of the Sport address at the first general session, the CEO may comment on the performance to date of any IAAF incumbent and/or describe the qualifications appropriate for any IAAF or USOC position.”

So Geer rejected Banks’ reading of Siegel’s talk.

“Max’s comments about Stephanie were related to her performance at the IAAF,” Geer said via email. “They referred to chairing the gender equity task force and being on the conflict resolution advisory group, as well as her advocacy against IAAF ranking systems that would have negatively impacted American athletes and the advocacy for the women’s 50K race walk.”

Geer said Siegel made no call for people to vote for Hightower and said the $1.7 million-a-year CEO’s remarks were about a range of women in the sport.

“I believe he mentioned 14 by name, including other USATF women who have held positions within the IAAF in the last year, including Maryanne Daniel and Laurie Boemker,” Geer told Times of San Diego.

Siegel, she said, uttered a few sentences about Boemker, who headed the IAAF International Technical Officials subcommittee.

“Others mentioned included Wendy Truvillion, Barbara Edmondson, Carmelita Jeter, Caryl Smith-Gilbert, Tonja Buford-Bailey, Des Linden, Kim Dismuke and several others,” Geer said.

On Sunday, Banks said Siegel had told him before the talk that “in the interest of full disclosure, I’m going to say something about Stephanie” in light of this being the “Year of the Woman.”

Banks said he didn’t complain, but realized the iffy nature of the remarks after others raised concerns of electioneering.

“My only comment was that, if this was an effort to help Stephanie, it seemed like a tactical error,” he said.

In any case, Banks said he made 30-40 stops at various caucuses and committee meetings after arriving Thursday night — only a half-hour after landing. (He had been attending the Association of National Olympic Committee meetings in Tokyo, where he represented San Diego organizers of the ANOC World Beach Games.)

As far as the IAAF race, Banks said he tried not to say anything about Hightower — just “represent what I believe was the future of track and field. Not to complain about anything that’s happened in the past.”

Banks didn’t rap Hightower on her remarks about Hersh.

“Some people, you just let them dig their own grave,” Banks said of Hightower, who had yet to contact Banks as of early Saturday afternoon. “I never said a word about the whole thing about Bob Hersh.”

The former Oceanside High School and UCLA star said he would “definitely pick up” Hightower’s IAAF initiatives on women’s representation.

“I will try to send as many women to both [regional body] NACAC and [International Association of Athletics Federations] functions as I possibly can,” he said.

Banks also vowed to continue her efforts regarding conflict resolution.

“I’m happy to be doing that,” he said. “That’s not a big issue for me. … I’d have to get more information from her.”

Hightower didn’t respond to a request for comment — or a note from Banks.

“I put a message into her, and we’ll see how that goes,” he said. “You know, it’s very difficult for her. She was confident that she would win.”

Banks also pushed back against a recent column by veteran Olympic sports watcher Alan Abrahamson, who backed Hightower’s election as IAAF representative and said she was favored by IAAF President Sebastian “Seb” Coe.

“Coe found out [about Banks’ run for IAAF rep] for the first time just this week … while he, Coe, was halfway around the world, at the Assn. of National Olympic Committees meetings in Tokyo,” Abrahamson wrote Wednesday. “Who likes this kind of surprise?”

On Saturday, Banks said he contacted Coe about his IAAF campaign a week ago Tuesday.

In addition, Banks said he ran into Coe during a gym workout at the Grand Prince Hotel New Takanawa.

Banks said that in Tokyo, Coe told him: “I’m not going to get involved because it wouldn’t be proper. But I think either you or Stephanie would be good candidates.”

After Coe said Hightower is “well-received on the council,” Banks said he replied: “I understand that. And that was it.”

Retired attorney (and USATF general counsel) Hersh, who rose to the IAAF Council’s senior vice presidency, was among Banks’ advisers in the IAAF run. But Banks says Hersh won’t dictate his decisions at IAAF.

“He and [IAAF Technical Committee member] David Katz have been very good at educating me on the issues, like the new rankings system that came out. And about gender representation, as well as how the council works and the voting works, and what I need to do between now and then and who I should be contacting,” Banks said.

Banks also credited help from Santee’s Tracy Sundlun, the former Rock ‘N’ Roll Marathon series exec.

“I will ask for advice in consultation because I know I’m not the end-all and be-all of knowledge,” Banks said. “I encourage people to talk to me as much as possible about the issues and about their concerns. … All decisions will be mine and mine alone.”

Four years ago, the USATF Board of Directors voted to overturn Hersh’s re-election by delegates as IAAF rep and send Hightower instead. This year, Banks said, he’s “not concerned” about a repeat.

“No, I think we have the votes in place [on the board] now that won’t allow that,” he said.

Banks would rejoin the USATF board next year if, at the IAAF General Assembly concurrent with the late-September track and field world championships in Doha, Qatar, he is elected by the IAAF Congress to the IAAF Council.

“I need to run a campaign,” the Track and Field Hall of Famer said of Doha, indicating that he’s already spoken to President Coe and IAAF Vice President Hamad Kalkaba Malboum of Cameroon. He’s also contacted two candidates for president of NACAC — the North American, Central American and Caribbean association of IAAF.

“I’ve been in this business long enough to know most of the people who sit on the council already,” said Banks, who sits on the executive board of the World Olympians Association. “I have a network helping me get on the council.”

Updated at 2:10 p.m. Dec. 2, 2018