By Ken Stone
Willie Banks had a website. He had a passport stamped from electioneering trips to Mexico, Peru, Japan, Africa and Europe.
But when the former Oceanside High School track star and Olympian got to Doha, Qatar, on Sunday for one of the most important competitions of his life, he didn’t have his luggage.
American Airlines botched the handoff.
Banks says his Qatar Airlines flight left Dallas 20 minutes before his baggage arrived. So when the 63-year-old Carlsbad resident made it to the site of the world track and field championships — and elections for the sport’s top governing body — he was “really shaken” to have none of his campaign materials.
Fortunately, the box of pamphlets and “Vote for Willie Banks” pens and notepads showed up 24 hours later. And after distributing 300 kits (including hugely popular USA Olympic pins), he was elected Wednesday morning as one of 13 new members of the powerful IAAF Council.
He finished 10th out of 40 after friends from around the world stumped for him. They included Santee’s Tracy Sundlun, the former Rock ‘N’ Roll Marathon executive and U.S. Olympic track team manager.
“It remains vital that USATF remain represented on the IAAF Council,” said USA Track & Field Interim President/Chair Michael Conley. “With this election, the USA will continue in its role as an influential figure in the international arena and remain diligent moving toward the 2021 IAAF World Championships on U.S. soil.”
Since December, USATF says, its staff worked in tandem with Banks, targeting IAAF voters and influencers to inform them of his qualifications and vision.
Banks, the former world record holder in the triple jump out of UCLA, called the campaign similar to running for office in a city or small state.
“You try to … shake hands and meet as many people as possible and let them get comfortable with you,” he said via phone. “Get their feedback and try to be open and honest.”Still fighting jet lag as he relaxed at the Sheraton Grand Hotel Doha, Banks called being elected to the 27-member council the top honor of his track career.
“Absolutely,” he said. “A lot of people would say ‘Oh, the world record’ … [or] ‘Oh, he invented the [rhythmic] clap.’ All these good things that happened to me were terrific, but to be able to win this and actually make an impact on the sport that has given me everything … now I finally get to pay back by giving some of the experiences and ideas and hard work that the sport deserves.”
Banks, a former member of the USA Track & Field governing board, was chosen in December to be America’s representative to the International Association of Athletics Federations. But he didn’t take it for granted that he’d succeed fellow Americans Stephanie Hightower and Bob Hersh on the IAAF Council.
“I was the new guy on the block,” he said (even though he was well-known via his board position on the World Olympians Association). “I didn’t have a natural. … It was very difficult. I had to cobble a group together.”
But he conceded: “People were very supportive because I was coming from the U.S.A.”
Banks shared his platform, including a vow to “crack down as hard as we can” on doping.
He told IAAF voting delegates that meet opportunities need to be expanded beyond Europe and the elite Diamond League. Banks said places like central Africa’s Cameroon, South America’s Chile and cities in Asia need to host big international events. Even Micronesia.
But they need to be “sustainable,” viable every year so athletes can rely on them.
It’s “critical for athletes to be huge stars,” he said. “We can’t continue to just focus on just being good athletes.”
He reprised ideas pitched before Doha.
“We have to believe that our sport is entertainment,” Banks said. “We have to find ways to drive that entertainment into the public by using innovation, by being smart about how we put on meets,” such as venues outside stadiums. He cites street races and pole vault contests in shopping malls.
“Our whole job is to inspire young people to aspire to be like us, right?” he said, recalling a Japan competition that featured him and long jump world record holder Mike Powell.
Outside of the Olympics and world championships, he said, “we can be more creative.”
He envisions broadcasts with visual aids like first-down lines in NFL games.
“In track meets, you don’t know who’s winning in the triple jump. Or high jump,” he said. “We can create new scoreboards and new placements, so people can see … quickly who’s winning or who’s going ahead.”
At the IAAF World Relays last May in Yokohama, Banks met with IAAF CEO Jon Ridgeon.
Ridgeon was “excited by the ideas I have,” Banks said. “He was happy to hear that I was running. Now we can sit down and talk more directly.”
Although the four-year council gig is unpaid, his travel and lodging costs are being defrayed by the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee and Indianapolis-based USATF. But certain perks apply.
He learned that his accreditation goes from “hardly gets me anywhere” to “gets me almost everywhere,” he said with a laugh.
On Sunday, he gets to be a cheerleader. It’s the men’s triple jump final at Khalifa International Stadium.
“I have a feeling” of an American sweep, Banks said, referring to a U.S. contingent that includes two-time Olympic champion Christian Taylor and former University of Florida teammate Will Claye, a two-time world indoor champ with 2019’s best mark. American Omar Craddock won at the Pan American Games and IAAF Diamond League meeting in Rome. And two other Americans are entered, thanks to byes.
“It’s looking very good,” he said. “I think we can … go one-two-three-four, if [Donald] Scott gets his act together. … This is a great time for triple jump.”
Banks also boasts: “Another triple jumper made it onto the IAAF Council from Spain [Raúl Chapado]. It’s going to be an amazing time for the triple jump.”
Most of all, he hopes the IAAF — soon to be known as World Athletics — leaps into the future.
“We have to change our culture in track and field to believe that what we’re doing is special,” Banks said. “We have to let people know that this is not just a sport. It’s the basis of sport. It’s the basis of human performance. And it is something that’s beautiful to see.”
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