Can Willie Banks Change Track & Field, Again?

Can Willie Banks Change Track & Field … Again?

He was the first to start the slow, rhythmic clap before a triple jump that is ubiquitous today. Now, he’s looking to improve the sport behind the scenes.

Can Willie Banks Change Track & Field … Again?
LØPE MAGAZINE – Issue No. 025, August 2020

Words by Liam Boylan-Pett
Illustration by Aaliya Davidson (@aaliyadxart)

“I came in with noise, and I’ll probably go out with noise.”

Willie Banks pressed play on his Sony Walkman. The synthy, syncopated sounds of Funkadelic’s “(Not Just) Knee Deep” popped out of the foamy, bright orange headphones plopped atop his ears. He nodded his head and fell into a groove. After a few minutes of watching his competitors take their turns, he was ready. Banks pulled the headphones from his ears, took off his sweats, and walked to the end of the runway. He stared down at the pit of sand at the other end of the tartan and clapped his hands above his head three times and pumped his fist, just like he did before every jump. Then something funny happened: A group of about five drunk fans clapped three times, too—mimicking Banks.

For Banks, who had been in a bad mood in the days leading up to the triple jump that day in Stockholm in July 1981, those fans clapping back was a wake-up call. 

After winning the triple jump at the United States Championship in June, he flew over to Europe to jump a few more times. There was one problem, however. He was being asked to long jump in Lausanne, Switzerland. And he was not a long jumper. Banks called Andy Norman, a meeting director in Europe to complain. But when he asked why there was no triple jump, Norman explained that the triple jump did not sell tickets. Banks, a man of many words, had no retort. At least he had one chance to triple jump, though. 

So, in Stockholm with his headphones blacking the noise of the stadium, Banks watched as competitor after competitor faulted on the first round of the jump. It was boring, he thought to himself. 

Then, after going through his routine of three claps and a fist shake, the drunk fans clapped back at him. At first, he was annoyed. But he clapped again, and they answered again. He sprinted down the runway and jumped 16.80 meters. Before the next jump he thanked the rowdy clappers. This time, however, there was a welcome surprise after his three-clap routine: More fans clapped along with him. He jumped 16.88 meters. 

People in the stands were enjoying themselves, he thought, why couldn’t he have some fun with them? After all, he had convinced the cheerleading squad at U.C.L.A. to cheer as he ran down the runway in college, why couldn’t he get these guys on his side, too? So, he plopped his headphones on his head again and started dancing. The crowd loved it. 

On his third jump, one-half of the stadium was clapping with him as he burst down the straight and leapt out over 17 meters. He bounced out of the pit, his long legs bounding away from the sand like a praying mantis with springs. He blew kisses to the fans. 

Banks loved every second of it. He asked the triple jump officials to put out three flags: one for the Swedish record, one for the European record, and one for the World Record. He fouled on his fifth jump as the entire stadium clapped and roared for him. He put on a show asking the official to reconsider the foul even though Banks knew full well he had—“You could see it was a foul from Mars,” he would later say.

Then, on his sixth and final jump with the entire stadium in the palm of his hands, Banks followed the claps down the runway—Boom! Boom! Boom!—and hopped, skipped, and jumped 17.55 meters. He was one centimeter short of his own American Record. According to his retelling, a few fans rushed the infield and picked him up on their shoulders. He gave a quick speech thanking everyone. 

Banks had put on a show in the triple jump. And he had had some fun doing it. 

There was one problem: He was not going to triple jump again. It was onto the long jump—where he was inferior in comparison—in Lausanne. Banks went from the high of the competition to the low of it being over in an instant. He thought he would never duplicate that night in Stockholm. “I was sitting there thinking to myself, ‘I’m in trouble,’” Banks told me nearly forty years later. “I was depressed,” he said of the days between the meets.

Still, he traveled to Lausanne a week later and, sitting on the infield before his jump, put on his headphones again. His best in the long jump was about 7.75 meters then. He was not confident he would do much better. But then, as he was walking toward the end of the runway for his first jump, someone yelled “Willie!” Surprised, he turned around and threw his hands up in the air. 

“All of a sudden everyone started clapping,” Banks said with a laugh. “They started doing the rhythmic clap.” 

That sense of missing out flew away in an instant. He could duplicate that feeling he had in Stockholm. Banks tingled with excitement as the crowd erupted in a cheer. “All my nerves were shooting out to my skin,” he said, “and I was just so excited to jump.” The fans had seen Banks’ triple jump in Stockholm on television the week before, and they were in Lausanne to watch the exciting American jumper. The triple jump, it seemed, could sell tickets. 

Banks bolted along the runway. The claps grew louder and louder and more syncopated as they rushed into a howling roar of slaps. He leapt 8.11 meters. 

Willie Banks had created something special. He kept it with him for the rest of his career—as did many other field event specialists who, to this day, begin a slow clap for a jump, throw, or vault. 

In 2020, Banks is hoping to change the sport for the better once again. This time, he is on a different side of the sport. 

He has high hopes. 

William Banks III was an active child. Growing up, he would jump off and over anything he could find. His parents got so worried at how energetic he was that they took him to a therapist. The diagnosis was simple: “Put him in sports.”

So, Banks, who liked basketball the most, played sports. He was born in 1956 just off the Travis Air Force Base in Northern California but grew up in Southern California, going to Oceanside High School, just north of Carlsbad. By the time he was a senior in high school, he was a star basketball player, but he was the best prep triple jumper in the country. After Banks set a track record at a meet his senior year, the reporter covering the event could sense what type of an athlete Banks was. “You wondered if by the time he’s decided to call it a career, how many triple jump records won’t he be able to call his own,” Charlie Mack wrote in the Escondido Times-Advocate in May 1974. 

Banks, now 64, told me he had a few scholarship offers to play basketball, but knew he didn’t have the skills to play professional ball. So, he went to the University of California, Los Angeles to jump. He set U.C.L.A. on fire, too. 

In his first dual meet against the University of Southern California, Banks won the long jump. With one jump in the triple remaining and Banks outside of scoring position, however, U.S.C. was set to take a 74-71 team win. Then the U.C.L.A. cheerleaders led a cheer just before Banks sprinted down the runway. Fans chanted “C’mon Willie!” as he rushed the straight and took off. Banks had the jump of his life at the time, soaring out over 55 feet to win the event and flip the score. U.C.L.A. won 75-70. U.C.L.A. coach Jim Bush called it “the most incredible come-through performance by a freshman I’ve ever seen.”

He continued to shine in blue and gold in Westwood, and soon enough was competing at an elite level. He was not quite ready to make the Olympic team in 1976, but did qualify for the cursed 1980 squad that had to compete at the Liberty Bell Classic in Philadelphia while the rest of the world raced, jumped, and threw in Moscow.

Banks was a showman, even before the triple jump in Stockholm with the drunk fans. He admired Dwight Stones, who won bronze for the U.S. in the high jump in the 1972 and ’76 Olympics. Banks liked Stones because he did his own thing. “He wore a Mickey Mouse shirt,” Banks told me and laughed. “And before he jumped, he quieted down the crowd. Everybody had to be quiet.” Banks, for a moment of his jumping career, thought he should attempt the same thing. But while the silence fit Stones, it wasn’t him. Banks needed it to be chaotic. He needed the noise.

He would often bring it. 

In 1981 he set the American Record in the triple jump weeks before inventing the slow clap. He won silver at the 1983 World Championships in Helsinki but had an off day at the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984, struggling to a sixth-place finish. Then, at the 1985 U.S. Championships in Indianapolis, Banks stood at the end of the runway as a spattering of fans clapped for him—most were focused on the women’s 800, which was midrun when Banks began his jump. He walked into a sprint and took off. He hit the board perfectly for liftoff, his right foot skipped like a stone on a calm lake for the second leap, and he exploded off his left foot for the final jump. He landed in the sand and bounced out in an instant. He knew he had popped one. It was not quite like the wait Bob Beamon had in Mexico City in 1968, but Banks urged the scoreboard to flash the result. Finally, it did: 17.97 meters. A new World Record. 

Banks went on to make the 1988 Olympics, too. But even though he would compete as a master’s athlete in the late 1990s, he was not much of a factor on the international stage after the 1980s. In all, he made three Olympic teams and held a world record for ten years—Great Britain’s Jonathan Edwards broke it in 1995, and with his 60-foot jump that summer, still holds the world record. Retiring from competition, however, did not keep Banks out of the sport.

He was not going away without making some more noise. 

“Three years I spent in student government at U.C.L.A.” Banks said. “And that was a paid position,” he laughed.

Banks was almost always interested in policies and doing what he could to advance an agenda. He said that after the 1980 Olympic boycott, he felt he had to be a part of the change for good—especially when it came to the sport of track and field. 

In 1986, he created HSJ, Incorporated, a sports management and consulting firm that creates relationships between the U.S. and Japan. He has been working on it ever since—he even lived in Japan for a while in the 1990s—all while doing his best to keep a foot in the door of professional track and field.

“I love the sport, but I’m not a fanatic,” he told me. “If there’s a track meet on television, I might not watch unless I know a triple jumper.” But he wants the sport to bring people like him back. “I’m involved in the governance of the sport,” he said, “because I want to move the sport to professionalism.”

At first, he helped by working with the Atlanta Olympics Organizing Committee. Then from 2005 to 2008, he was the president of the U.S. Olympians Association. From there, he joined the U.S.A.T.F. Board of directors. 

Throughout it all, the sport was stagnant in Banks’ eyes. He did not feel he was doing enough. Meanwhile, he continued to be himself. In 2012 at the age of 56, he high jumped 6 feet, becoming the oldest American athlete to do so. But his escapades were not impacting the sport the way he felt they should.

So, he went to the C.E.O. of U.S.A.T.F., Max Siegel, with a plan: He wanted to separate the marketing arm of U.S.A.T.F. from the governing body—just like sports like the N.F.L. and N.B.A. do. “I’m telling you there is a governing body for basketball in this country, but nobody knows what it is,” Banks said of U.S.A. Basketball. Meanwhile, he explained, the N.B.A. is essentially a marketing firm for pro basketball. This is what he told Siegel track and field should strive for. 

Siegel did not bite, Banks said, because of the worry that some people in power would lose it. As Banks told the Times of San Diego in 2018, “Well, who cares if you lose power if it brings more attention and more money and resources into the sport? The high tide raises all the boats, not just one.”

Eight years later, Banks still believes that to be true. He wants to separate the governing body from the marketing arm of the sport. 

Which made it interesting that he wanted to join the sport’s governing body on the world stage, World Athletics. And in 2019 he did. In Doha at the World Championships, Banks was voted onto the World Athletics Council. 

As he told me more than once when we spoke in August, “World Athletics might not be happy I’m saying this.” 

Banks treated his attempt to get on the World Athletics Council like a political campaign. He made a website. He shook hands. He handed out buttons. And he did ruffle some feathers, running on a platform of rejecting the very entity he was trying to join. However, he still was elected as one of thirteen members of the World Athletics Council. 

While he is not in charge of creating a strategic plan for World Athletics, he does have some sway and inside access to those who do get to make those policy decisions. Banks was ready to hit the ground running once elected. The coronavirus pandemic, however, has slowed plans. 

Banks is doing his best to get to know people in Zoom meetings but is excited about getting out and traveling from his home in Carlsbad once he can.

In the meantime, he is trying to convince anyone he can that the governing bodies of track and field need an overhaul. And he remains a showman. When we spoke over the phone, his excitement oozed through the other end of the line, speaking quickly and emphatically about the excitement he has for the triple jump and the sport. He was also eager to learn about my interest in track and field, seemingly researching ways he could get others to care as much as I do. “I like watching people do amazing things,” I said. It was the week Valarie Allman had broken the American Record in the discus, and I told him I had watched the video at least forty times, amazed by the footwork, power, and grace in it all. 

“How do we harness that excitement?” Banks asked, somewhat rhetorically, but also hoping I might be able to give him an answer.

When I told him I did not know, he told me we must give athletes more chances to do something special, and we must get as many fans watching as possible. Not some easy task, he knows. 

“The athletes have to have power,” he said. “We have to give them a platform to be themselves.” But he also heeded a warning, explaining what was once explained to him by a meet director in Stockholm in 1981: “The athletes need to entertain us.” 

Just after Banks joined the World Athletics Council in the fall of 2019, the Diamond League announced major changes to the competition format. No longer would there be a 200-meter dash in the circuit—sorry to one of the sport’s brightest new stars, Noah Lyles. Same went for the steeplechase and the discus—sorry to the new American Record holder. The triple jump was also axed. 

Banks was not pleased. No, the World Athletics Council does not run the Diamond League, but it was still a tough pill for Banks to swallow. He was supposed to have sway, but his event was falling by the wayside. “I talked to Christian Taylor and I will talk to more people involved in those events,” Banks said, “and I said, ‘I’m behind you guys, you guys make it interesting.’” Banks said it is the same as it was in 1981. He could not find meets with the triple jump. “It’s always on the chopping block,” he said, “because people don’t get it.”

It is a paradoxical problem. Banks wants the athletes to entertain, but how can they do so, if there is not a place to perform?

“I got into the governing body,” Banks said, “because I want people to understand that you have to let go in order to grow the sport.” By letting go, Banks means putting power in the hands of the promoters and the athletes. “A governing body has to restrict and be fair,” Banks said. “Promotion companies have to make money.”

The argument against this idea is that meet promoters do not know what they’re doing, either.

Athletes, Banks believes, are the key to the sport’s growth. In his dream world, they will make the promoter’s job easier, too. But the promoters must give them a platform. There has to be a leap of faith.

In July, the Athletics Association, led by athletes like Taylor and Emma Coburn, launched. It is, “An independent body that will protect and advance the future of Athletics by unifying and defending the voice of elite Track and Field athletes worldwide—ensuring that they are at the heart of the decision-making process.”

The athletes want a seat at the table with Banks, too. Banks does have hope for World Athletics. “This is the only organization that I’ve been in in sport governance,” he said, “where people are in it to move the mission.” He hopes that all sides can work together to grow the sport—that they can all leap together.

“I’m a noise person,” Banks said in 1981, weeks before he invented the triple jump clap. “I came in with noise, and I’ll probably go out with noise.”

“The clap,” he told me, “got down to the core of who I am, and it got down to my passion.”

Will his passion spill over to the world of track and field once again? 

Or is it too late?

Banks doesn’t think so.

He’s always ready to make some noise. 

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