Willie Banks has been an influential advocate for athletes’ rights and the advancement and modernization of our sport, having served as chair of the Athletes Advisory Committee and on the USATF Board of Directors. His exploits on the track are great. Willie set the American Record in 1981 and World Record in 1985, was a member of 3 Olympic Teams (1980, 1984, 1988) and 2 World Championships Teams (1983, 1987), and was awarded the Track & Field News and United States Olympic Committee Athlete of the Year in 1985.
Back in 1981 I learned an important lesson about track and field. I had arrived in Europe after a national record setting national championship thinking I would be making money traveling from meet to meet in Europe. Well, you can imagine my surprise when I learned that I was sadly mistaken. I was told that there would be no triple jumps in Europe that year and I was out of luck!
After learning this piece of information I was furious and demanded to know why there were no triple jumps. I asked a man named Andy Norman, a rotund ex-London cop, who managed several big meets in Europe, why he wasn’t having the triple jump and he explained something that stuck with me even until today. Andy looked me straight in the eye and said, “I will not have the triple jump because the triple jump doesn’t put butts in the seats!” Furthermore, “why should I bring you in and pay you when no one is coming to the meet to watch you? Now get out of my face!”
To this day I feel blessed by Andy’s honest and forthright answer to my question.
That answer made me famous throughout the world because he helped me realize that sport is a business and the exact type of business is entertainment.
After the encounter with Andy, that evening I went out and put on a show in Stockholm stadium. The show became what is known as the clap. From that day on, I became known as the showman of track and field and went all over the world putting on my show and having a blast.
I learned that I couldn’t just win, I had to be more than an athlete, I had to PUT BUTTS IN THE SEATS. For many years after that, whenever an athlete approached me asking how to get sponsors, or how to make enough money to train, I would always tell them to stop thinking of this as a welfare sport and think of yourself as an entertainer. Add something besides winning to your event. Be different and interesting. No one comes to watch a track meet. People come to watch something interesting. If you are interesting, you are a value to the track meet, track and field in general and the world of sports.
If our sport is to be more popular, athletes must take responsibility for the growth by realizing that they have to participate in the promotion of the sport by being interesting. The sport is drowning in vanilla competitions and plain athletic performance. There is nothing for a non track junky to bring their butt to the stands. Granted, great performances will also bring people to the stands, but an athlete can break a record only so often. Thrills are the only thing that make track more interesting. I hope our new generation of track athletes will realize that having a personality will get them a long way, much further than just being able to run, jump, throw or walk.
Editor’s Note: Check out this video to see clear evidence that Willie excelled at the points he makes above (specifically from the 3:35 to 5:00 mark):