In what (I guess) were the good old days, Willie Banks, no sad-case Willy Loman he, would have been a carnival barker, a Professor Harold Hill. He is our P.T. Barnum, our greatest showman, track and field’s ultimate self-promoter.
And, unlike Dwight Stones, who did it deliberately with his mouth and artfulness, Willie did it by accident, with humility. Then came the acclaim.
I first met Banks in the early 1970s, when he won the triple jump at back-to-back state meets for Oceanside High in ’73 and ’74. He was delightful then and remains so now. There was something more than his obvious talent, which eventually would lead him to a 1985 world record (58-11½) in the event that would stand for more than 10 years, three lifetimes in most T&F events.
After he jumped at Oceanside, a jumpers’ watering hole, he would put his fingertips to both sides of his head and make a buzzing sound. It was his way of focusing.
But it was later, after UCLA and he enrolled in world class, that, by accidental good fortune, he developed his brand. The Clap.
But I’ll let Willie, who will be keynote speaker at Qualcomm Stadium on July 15 to kick off the California State Games, which will feature 12,000 athletes performing in a variety of sports around the county, tell it.
“It started in ’81, in Stockholm, when one of the organizers told me he didn’t find the triple jump exciting, but I went anyway,” he says. “When I got to the head of the runway, some drunk guys in the stands started to clap, and it went on and on. I started to clap, and more and more people joined in, and I set a European record.
“I thought it was my 15 minutes of fame. But I went to Lausanne two days later to long jump, which was not my thing, and people started clapping, I started clapping and got fired up. I jumped 26-8, the best jump ever in Switzerland.
“From that time on, I used the clap as my home-field advantage. It (ticked) off a lot of my competitors, but it worked. It kind of made me world famous.”
And of course, it went on to become track’s “wave,” only exciting, not nauseating.
Willie, now 60 and residing in Carlsbad, works with kids everywhere. And he preaches being clean in a sport that has been found guilty of cheating in so many events. Like me, Banks often has trouble watching the great feats without wondering if an athlete is juiced. It’s human nature.
“You’re only as good as your last competition,” he says. “People are vicious, but it makes you work harder — at least those of us who think of sports as honest, not for cheats.”
The thing about Banks is that he never won an Olympic gold medal or world championship (silver medal, 1983, Helsinki Worlds). He never became mayor of Oceanside, which he always said was one of his goals, either, nor did he pass the California bar exam after, “I think, four ties. I don’t think I was ready.” He’s OK with it all.
“You have to have good character, even if you don’t win a gold medal,” he says. “I’ve always had a passion for young people. What kind of example would I set if I did it taking drugs? It’s best to compete fairly and squarely, and that’s why the California Games are so important to me.
“The year after the world record I realized it when people came up to me. I knew if I had been juiced it wouldn’t have been worth it. Do your thing and enjoy what you’re doing.”
And about becoming mayor?
“I became an athlete instead,” Banks says. “But that was one of my goals. I wanted to be president of the United States, too. But politics got so nasty I decided to stay with track. Now, I do World Record Camps, teaching basic skills to kids and I started a foundation to help kids who can’t afford the camps. And there’s the Willie Banks Invitational at Oceanside High.
“That’s what makes me happy. It’s important for me to continue working with kids to become better athletes and people.”
And as for the athletes who are begging out of the Rio Olympics, Banks won’t be joining them.
“I am going to Rio,” he says. “Firm about that. I’ve been to eight Olympic Games and at least a year prior to every one they tell you there’s going to be a huge problem. When we went to Seoul, the North Koreans were going to lob bombs at us. When we went to Barcelona, the Basques were going to terrorize us. I don’t think it’s going to be a problem.”
Willie Banks has a great motto: “It’s not how you do, it’s how you project.”
He has done both. Very well. He’d make a great mayor.