Willie BanksWillie Banks © Copyright

Willie Banks: hand clap pioneer

Ahead of this year’s Stockholm Diamond League, former world triple jump record holder Willie Banks tells SPIKES how, with the help of some drunken fans, he unwittingly invented the slow, rhythmic hand clap in Stockholm some 33 years ago.

“After setting an American record of 17.56m in 1981, I went to Europe to compete and my manager set up some meets for me. He said to me ‘I have some good news and bad news’. I got you a competition in Lausanne in the long jump. I said ‘that's the good news? I'm a triple jumper’. 

“I was upset but I went up to a leading meet organiser called Andy Norman and said to him ‘why don't you have a triple jump?’ He said ‘let me explain something to you. This is a business, so why should I pay you when you don't put butts on seats?’

“That was my welcome to the business of track and field, which taught me a huge lesson that there is a difference between about just competing in athletics and the business of sport.

“Anyway, before Lausanne I did manage to compete in one triple jump competition in Stockholm. Before the competition began, I told my fellow competitors that this is a rare triple jump competition, so we have to do something special today like maybe break a European or world record. They just looked at me like I was crazy. 

“The first eight jumps of the competition were all fouls and I was getting more and more depressed. It was no wonder that Andy [Norman] didn't want to hold a triple jump competition. It was boring, quite frankly

“I had my Sony Walkman headphones on at a time when not many people had headphones. I had recorded one guitar solo from a song called ‘Not Just Knee Deep’ by a band called Funkadelic and I was playing it for motivation.

“I stood at the top of the runway for my first jump and went through my usual routine of clapping three times and shaking my fist. But as I clapped my hands, five drunk fans in the stands mimicked what I was doing and clapped three times.

“I turned around annoyed and then thought, this is stupid, it is my last triple jump competition, what the hell. I went back into my routine, I clapped my hands three times they clapped their hands three times again and I landed out to about 16.80m.”

Willie Banks waving

"Thanks for clapping, guys"

“I then thanked the guys in the stand. I started stretching and dancing with the headphones on. Yet when it came to my second jump those guys started clapping again. I waved to them and then a few more people started clapping. I jumped out to about 16.88m and as I walked back I thought, this is like the sweetest record I've ever known. 

“When I got back up for my third jump the whole side to the stadium was clap, clap, clap and I started shaking my fist to it. I then just jumped over 17m and I started blowing kisses to the crowd. 

“By the time of my fourth jump half the stadium was clapping and half the stadium was wondering what the hell everyone was clapping for. I thought, hey, I might be able to jump really good today, so I asked the meet organiser to put down three flags by the side of the pit - one for the Swedish record, one for the European record and one for the world record. 

“By the time of my fifth jump almost everyone in the stadium is stood up clapping. I ran down and landed right next to the world record, knowing full well that I’d fouled. I was acting like it was a world record and people were going crazy before the judge raises his red flag. 

“I then got down on her hands and knees to check whether it was a foul. You could see it was a foul from Mars and then laughed and went back to put on my headphones.

“It was then I saw some athletes doing a victory lap and I thought as triple jumpers we never get to do a victory lap, so why don’t I do one, even though the competition still had one round to go. I put my sweats on and started jogging around the track and every time I came to a section of spectators they stood up and clapped. 

“Then for my last jump everyone started clapping rhythmically ‘boom, boom’. I started running and landed just 0.01 short of my American record, which was back then a huge jump of 17.55m.”

Willie Banks jumping

It started with Willie Banks. Now, everyone does it.

“People then came from the crowd and carried me off on their shoulders. They hurried me across the in-field and a guy gave me a microphone and I started talking. I then went over to the section where all the meet organisers were sat and I said ‘so what do you think now?’

“About a week or so later, I went to Lausanne for that long jump competition. I wasn’t a great long jumper, at the time I had a best of around 7.75m. At the start of the competition someone asked me a question and it was like, what do you want with me? As I turned around I raised my hands upwards and as soon as I did everyone in the stadium started clapping rhythmically. 

“I forgot that unlike in the USA everyone in Europe watches track and field on TV. That day I jumped 8.11m and won the competition. For me the rhythmical clapping really worked. It was really motivational. In fact, if I knew people were clapping I didn’t even need to warm up.

“It is pretty amazing to think that today so many field event athletes still like the crowd to rhythmically clap them. It is awe-inspiring to think it has gone that far because I never really thought of it. I genuinely need to thank those drunken fans.”

Watch Willie Banks in action at the 1983 World Championships in Helsinki: