On October 18, 1977, I was one of four athletes who, with quaking knees, made their way to the witness table in Room 5110 of the Dirksen Senate Office Building. There, skater/cyclist Sheila Young, water polo player Carl Thomas, rower Anita DeFrantz and marathoner Moore gazed up at hot lights and an elevated panel of senators and staff. We had been summoned to testify to the need for what eventually became the Amateur Sports Act of 1978, which restructured Olympic sports governance in the U.S.
We had drawn straws to decide our order of appearance; I had to go first. Runners, I said, had been made pawns in a turf war between the NCAA and the AAU. Athletic directors, I said, should be consultants, not dictators. Furthermore, athletes' freedom to compete where physically qualified should be recognized in federal law.
I didn't think I'd done too badly. Then Senator John C. Culver of Iowa, a boulder of a man, hunched forward and began to mash my case.
"You are saying they [coaches and athletes] ought to talk it over, but the athlete ought to be the one to ultimately decide. Be free to go. No coach, college or parent should stand in the way," he rumbled. "What if one parent wants him to go and the other parent doesn't want him to go and the young athlete wants to go? How would you resolve it legally?
August 28, 1988
I didn't know. I hadn't even thought of the age problem. Panic rose. I opened my mouth without a clue as to what would come out.
Then, from my near left, rose a steady contralto. "I'm an attorney and I represent children exclusively, so I would say that the child has the right to make that decision," the voice said. "But beyond that, I think that we often forget that sports is an activity which involves decision making. It was DeFrantz, rescuing me, returning the debate to the question of whether responsible athletes might be free to compete where they chose.
The NCAA would eventually lobby to remove separate guarantees of athletes' rights from this bill—it would be left to the U.S. Olympic Committee to safeguard them. But as we rose from the table and I felt myself nearly blushing in gratitude, De-Frantz began to lament the difficulty of getting people to do what they know is right. It was clear that Olympic athletes had found a forceful new advocate. In October 1986, nine eventful years later, 34-year-old Anita DeFrantz was named a member of the International Olympic Committee. Because she has been appointed to the position for life (actually, as a voting member until age 75, after which the position becomes honorary), DeFrantz is looking at more than 40 years in sport's most powerful institution, during which she can give voice to a single theme, to the idea of athletes' rights.
In 1976, DeFrantz was a fresh face on the U.S. Olympic Committee's Athletes Advisory Council. She was a member of the bronze medal-winning women's eight in Montreal that year. It soon became apparent that hers was the art of the penetrating question, and in this she was right for the times. The President's Commission on Olympic Sports was studying the failings of the U.S. system, and restructuring was inevitable. The AAC, which had been formed only three years earlier, was the only body representing athletes from all the Olympic sports, so it was pitched into every argument.
"You came in knowing a sport," recalls DeFrantz, "and you ended up knowing sport. There were feuds and mismanagement everywhere. It was a crash course."
She had grown up in Indianapolis, where her father, the late Robert DeFrantz, had run an organization called Community Action Against Poverty. Her mother, also Anita, was a teacher and is now a professor of education at the University of San Francisco. So the tendency toward community service was in her genes.
Her proclivity for sport, however, took a while to surface. It wasn't until DeFrantz was a student at Connecticut College that rowing coach Bart Gulong took a look at her rangy 5'11" frame and first got her into a shell. When Gulong eventually said she was talented enough to consider the Olympics, she was startled. "I didn't even know rowing was in the Olympics."
In point of fact it wasn't, but Gulong was aware that women's rowing would become an Olympic sport for the first time at Montreal. By then DeFrantz was at the University of Pennsylvania Law School and rowing for the Vesper Boat Club. In Montreal, the East Germans and Soviets held her U.S. crew to third, but DeFrantz figured she would have another chance in four years at Moscow. She went home, became a lawyer, bailed this poor misspoken marathoner out of a jam before the Senate committee, and soon was elected by the athletes to the Executive Board of the USOC.
That was all prologue. Now life turned contrary. One evening in January 1980, at a friend's birthday party, she caught a glimpse on TV of President Jimmy Carter announcing that because of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, "I would not favor the sending of an American Olympic team to Moscow."
DeFrantz was astounded. "I said, "Huh? He must not understand.' The only people who could decide to surrender all they had worked for were the athletes themselves."
And DeFrantz, for one, wasn't about to surrender. For her, this was exactly the kind of political circumstance that the Olympic ideal was meant to transcend. "The boycott trivialized the Games," she says. "It brought them down to the level of trade embargoes." DeFrantz knew the USOC could enter a team in Moscow over the objections of the Carter Administration (Great Britain's Olympic Association eventually did this, defying the Thatcher government). She and a group of AAC athletes set out to convince the USOC to act against the directives of Carter.
DeFrantz, who became known as the voice and face of the opposition, learned what happens when you ask people to rise against the patriotic tide. "I was getting hate mail. I got visits from people I'm positive were FBI agents wanting to 'sympathize' with me." Meanwhile, she plowed her anxiety into her training and again made the Olympic team.
Yet she was becoming so persuasive that Carter sent Vice-President Walter Mondale to the April meeting of the USOC House of Delegates, where the final decision would be voted. "History holds its breath," said Mondale, and he asserted that a boycott was crucial to the nation's security. Behind the scenes, the Administration let it be known that it would dismember the USOC's funding if the organization didn't toe the line. Former Treasury Secretary William Simon, then USOC treasurer and later its president, spoke eloquently on the need to support Carter.
Then DeFrantz, in a memorable speech, said that the Olympic family surely sensed what was right. It simply needed the courage to do it. "We define our liberty by testing it," she said. "This is such a test." The 300 delegates cheered her, and then voted by 2 to 1 to bow to the boycott.
DeFrantz fought on, becoming the plaintiff in an unsuccessful lawsuit aimed at forcing the USOC to live up to its constitution and send a team to Moscow. "Anita was very unpopular with the USOC in those years," says then-AAC president Ed Williams.
But in other quarters DeFrantz, now that her competence had been revealed, was much sought after. She already was a USOC representative on the board of the Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee. In 1981, Peter Ueberroth brought her onto the management team. She spent the months leading up to the Summer Games as the LAOOC's liaison with African nations, and was charged with the responsibility of heading off any black boycott. During the Games, she served as chief administrator of the Olympic Village at USC.
The next year, after Ueberroth's cost containments had produced a $230 million profit—$93 million of which was earmarked for sports in Southern California—the Amateur Athletic Foundation of Los Angeles was established. In June 1987, DeFrantz became its president. She continues to administer $22 million in grants and programs the foundation has established.
DeFrantz had been an administrator in amateur sports for nearly a decade when, in 1986, the IOC was looking to fill a vacancy created by the death of Julian K. Roosevelt, one of its two U.S. representatives. In the IOC's lordly scheme of things, the USOC doesn't elect its own representatives; it submits names from which, it hopes, the IOC might select. The USOC's list consisted of Ueberroth, former swimmer and TV broadcaster Donna de Varona, USOC vice-presidents Evie Dennis and William Tutt, the late swimming official Harold Henning and DeFrantz.
Ueberroth had support, but he was probably rejected because of the tone of his autobiography. Made in America, in which he detailed his battles with IOC officials. De Varona, who won two golds in the 1964 Olympics, has labored a lifetime in the trenches of sports politics. "But her profession was the stumbling block," says DeFrantz, implying that few seats of power will welcome a reporter into their secret councils. DeFrantz, however, had been given the Olympic Order award by the IOC after her campaign against the Carter boycott. She was clearly a woman who would be an envoy from the Olympic empyrean rothe U.S. chapter. She was in.
There are 92 members of the IOC. "There are captains of industry, royalty, government officials and people connected with their predecessors," DeFrantz says. "They aren't generally people with an intimate knowledge of sport. They come with different portfolios, but their mission becomes the same, to see that the Games survive and flourish."
One naturally wonders whether an impatient athletes' rights activist can fit in. "The IOC moves very slowly," she says, "by design. You have to put in time to earn the confidence of the members if you're going to have lasting influence. And I think that is..."—her expression acknowledges that 10 years ago she might not have said this—"...as it should be. This is an institution that is, if you will, eternal."
DeFrantz's office at the Amateur Athletic Foundation is in a redbrick, Corinthian-pillared mansion near downtown Los Angeles. It is a place of sufficient weight for even the most traditional IOC member. But follow DeFrantz home to her gray-and-white cottage in Santa Monica. Help her paint the tool shed; do not step on her newly planted lawn. Here, she seems far removed from that aristocracy she has somehow crashed. "Life is good," she says. "I love what I'm doing. It's rare at my age to know I'll be in this for so long."
Besides her position as president of the Amateur Athletic Foundation, DeFrantz retains her USOC posts. Much of that $230 million war chest left from the L.A. Olympics is administered by the U.S. Olympic Foundation. DeFrantz is on its board. "Right now," she says, "the USOC writes checks to the national governing bodies [of individual sports]. And those national governing bodies spend the money without a great deal of accountability."
DeFrantz has helped urge four-year plans on the NGBs. "It was hard for many of them to think about development involving more than just getting the team to the Games. Our most desperate need in this nation is to have some coaching standards. Anyone can coach here. We have nothing like other nations' schools for training and certifying coaches."
DeFrantz argues for an American blend of school, community, corporate, foundation and Olympic Committee effort. "The problem we've often had in sports is that everyone wants it run his way," she says. "We need a more pluralistic society in sport."
Her conviction is never more absolute than on the question of South Africa. DeFrantz has moved repeatedly that the U.S. Olympic Foundation rid itself of investments in companies doing business in that country. "I believe that apartheid is so horrible a blight that we are, each one of us, forced to be a part of the problem or a part of the solution," she says. "You either accept and cooperate with a government that has this evil contempt for its own citizens, or you say, "No, you must be isolated.' "
She has been opposed on this issue, just as she was eight years earlier on the boycott, by Simon. The past president of the USOC, noting that the organization took a $20 million bath when the stock market crashed last October, has stressed that the matter of any embargo on South Africa is one of financial responsibility. "Bill is being a forceful proponent of what he holds true," says DeFrantz. "But it's not a financial question. You can do as well in a restricted portfolio as in one including South African investments. Never has a board member been sued for divestment."
Looking ahead, DeFrantz sees the Seoul Games being freer of boycott than any Olympics since 1972. At present, the nonentrants are North Korea, Cuba, Ethiopia, Albania, Nicaragua and the Seychelles. Why have they opted out?
"I wish I knew," says DeFrantz, truly vexed. "They say they're showing solidarity with North Korea's demands to host a chunk of the Games. The strange thing is that Castro was deeply involved in those negotiations with North Korea. He let the North Koreans know that [IOC president Juan Antonio] Samaranch was sincere. So Cuba was a real surprise. I've got three books on Castro in the house to try to puzzle it out."
DeFrantz is still game to bring these lost sheep in. "It's the same old story," she says. "People in power using the dreams of others. It's despicable. I find myself wondering how to encourage people to do what we know is right." She looks over. "Or have you heard me go on about that somewhere before?"