Who run the world? Beyoncé knows. The IAAF, too

Who run the world, as Beyoncé so eloquently puts it? 

Can there be any doubt that the International Olympic Committee and the International Association of Athletics Federations are in the midst of undertaking the most emphatic efforts to put talented, sophisticated, deserving women in positions of leadership?

Thus the question: why Willie Banks’ candidacy for the USA Track & Field position to the International Association of Athletics Federation governing Council, and especially why now?

Particularly when USATF already has, in Stephanie Hightower, a senior executive who has given USATF a much-bigger voice, presence and influence within the IAAF than in some time and who, as well, commands the respect and trust of the most important person at the federation, its president, Sebastian Coe.

Like the IOC, the IAAF speaks in signals and code. All you have to do is attend IAAF meetings and news conferences and bear witness to protocol: who sits where at meetings or is positioned where in photos. This is not happenstance. There’s Coe. And often right next to him? Hightower.

The insurgent cohort in USATF won’t let go of the membership vote for Bob Hersh that its board wisely overturned four years ago. That vote sent Hightower to the IAAF position.

That cohort remains consumed in replaying domestic grievance. That keeps it from understanding the simple human dynamics that animate international sports politics.

What Banks should have done is called Coe many, many months ago, and said, hey, Seb, we have obviously known each other for forever, which they have, and I’m thinking about doing this, and what do you think? And then the two of them would have had a chat, in which the IAAF president would have said to Banks, not now, do you understand the big picture here?

IAAF president Seb Coe and IAAF Council rep Stephanie Hightower at USA House at the 2016 Rio Games // Getty Images

IAAF president Seb Coe and IAAF Council rep Stephanie Hightower at USA House at the 2016 Rio Games // Getty Images

Willie Banks at the 2015 ANOC assembly in Washington // Getty Images

Willie Banks at the 2015 ANOC assembly in Washington // Getty Images

Instead, Coe found out for the first time just this week about Banks’ plan while he, Coe, was halfway around the world, at the Assn. of National Olympic Committees meetings in Tokyo. 

Who likes this kind of surprise? 

No one. 

Especially not the president of the IAAF. 

Especially not when the IAAF has been signaling unequivocally that the promotion of women in its leadership ranks is a command priority.

And when this particular president has made it abundantly clear that Stephanie Hightower is a leader.

The IAAF and IOC may not agree on everything — see how to handle the Russians — but on the matter of elevating and empowering women in governance and leadership positions, it’s one and the same.

First, the IOC.

Just Wednesday, the IOC was given an award at the Women Leaders Global Forum in Reykjavik, Iceland, for “promoting gender balance in sport.” 

The IOC received the award along with the African Women Leaders Network and the #MeToo movement — for “leading the way in promoting non-discrimination and greater participation by women in all areas of sport.”

Some numbers here:

Four members of the IOC’s policy-making executive board are female. The number of women in its commissions increased to 42 percent in 2018; this marked an improvement of 98 percent since 2013.

At the just-concluded Youth Games in Buenos Aires, 50 percent of the athletes were girls; that same gender balance is expected at the 2020 Youth Winter Games in Lausanne, Switzerland. The IOC expects that the Tokyo 2020 Summer Games will be 49 percent female. 

Switching to the IAAF:

In October 2017, an IAAF “gender leadership task force,” meeting in Bahrain, got to work to identify gender targets — let that sink in, in Bahrain, where the crown prince said he was “delighted” to be hosting this “important” get-together. This past March, as part of the reforms adopted by its Congress in 2016, the IAAF wrote minimum targets into its constitution.

The IAAF gender leadership task force meeting, chaired by Hightower, fourth from left, standing in the photo next to Coe — photo courtesy IAAF

The IAAF gender leadership task force meeting, chaired by Hightower, fourth from left, standing in the photo next to Coe — photo courtesy IAAF


As things now stand, there are six women on the IAAF’s ruling Council. That six will jump to seven in 2019, 10 in 2023 and 13 (of 27) in 2027. 

In 2019, one of the four vice presidents will be a woman.

By 2027, two of the four v-p slots will be women. 

Athlete commission chair Iñaki Gomez of Canada and deputy chair Valerie Adams of New Zealand were elected for 2019 Council slots. 

As Coe has said many times, “We have parity in pay, parity in play but not parity in positions.”

Who heads the IAAF gender leadership working group?

Stephanie Hightower.

At the IAAF elections in Beijing in 2015, Hightower was elected to the IAAF Council as the highest vote-getter for one of six seats designated for women, with 163 votes. Nawal el-Moutawakel, an IAAF Council member since 1995, an IOC member since 1998 and — recall, chair of the IOC coordination commission overseeing preparations for the yet-to-occur 2016 Games in Rio — was second in voting, with 160 votes. 

To reiterate, signals and code.

When it is mandatory that one of four vice-presidential slots is going to be filled by a woman, and the IAAF president appoints Stephanie Hightower to lead the gender leadership working group, and that group comes back with targets that are written into the IAAF constitution, it is patently obvious who is being considered for what.

Obviously, the world holds no guarantees. That applies to Stephanie Hightower, and IAAF politics. All the same, ask:

With the IAAF championships scheduled for the United States for the first time ever, in Eugene, Oregon, in 2021, and the signals are what they are, with the possibility of a female and African-American vice president — a proven and accomplished executive from Columbus, Ohio — demonstrating to the world that that the IAAF doesn’t just talk the talk but walks the walk, USATF would want to make a change because, why?  

A grudge going on for four years is a grievance, and that is not a good reason.

Indeed, in emails that are circulating this week, a group of coaches — including some who may or may not have been personally at odds with Hightower — noted about the prospect of her being replaced at the IAAF:

“This could be problematic if we lose all of our current seniority and political clout … when we replaced Ollan Cassell as CEO he was our Senior Vice President of the IAAF - 2nd in Command … when we replaced him we lost all that seniority and clout and had to start all over again … Guam has the same number of votes (1) as the U.S., so individual political clout is important if we are going to be adequately represented.”

Elsewhere, the emails acknowledged with approval that Hightower had “joined with some others to get the ‘euro-centric’ IAAF qualifying process [for the 2019 worlds in Doha, Qatar] postponed for a year.” One coach said she had even called and texted from a meeting in Beirut with updates, calling it “the anatomy of success,” adding, “The reason for sharing … is to make the point that personal animus has to give way to what is best for the group.”