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Is She the Most Powerful Woman in Sports?

Randy Harvey covers the Olympics for The Times

The most powerful woman in sports is on edge, has been all evening. She arrived at the entrance of Atlanta’s Centennial Olympic Stadium in a luxury car provided for her as a member of the International Olympic Committee--a perk she still does not seem to be comfortable with after a decade--and had started to make a quick exit. “Will you get in trouble if I jump out now?” she asked the young man assigned to chauffeur her. “Maybe. You’d better wait for the official door opener,” he said. She sighed. And waited.

Now Anita DeFrantz sits alone inside the 85,000-seat stadium. She peeks often at her watch, as if to will an early sundown so that the night’s program can begin. The $232-million stadium, which will host the opening and closing ceremonies during the July 19-Aug. 4 Summer Olympics, is scheduled to open officially the next day with a track meet. DeFrantz has been invited to this sneak preview, which also serves to test the stadium lights.

For the record:
12:00 AM, Jul. 21, 1996 For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday July 21, 1996 Home Edition Los Angeles Times Magazine Page 6 Times Magazine Desk 1 inches; 18 words Type of Material: Correction
In the June 30 issue, the Page 10 photograph of Anita DeFrantz should have been credited to Times photographer Robert Gauthier.

A few yards behind her, at a cocktail party in the stadium’s VIP lounge, are about 200 guests, including IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch of Spain and International Amateur Athletic Federation President Primo Nebiolo of Italy. Occasionally, some of them step outside to chat with DeFrantz, who is drinking bottled water. She is cordial but seems distracted.

Could it be that she has too many weighty issues on her mind? As a member of the IOC’s inner circle--its 11-member executive board--as well as the U.S. Olympic Committee’s 22-member executive committee, she is the most influential American in the Olympic movement since Avery Brundage, the controversial former IOC president.

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Brundage, whose sole purpose was to prevent the Modern Games from becoming too modern, would not have made room in his IOC for DeFrantz. Befitting her experiences in the 1976 Summer Olympics as a bronze medalist in rowing--"the noblest sport,” she calls it--DeFrantz is most often linked with two causes: athletes’ rights, including those of professionals to participate in the Olympics, and increased opportunities in sports for women. It is debatable whether women’s soccer or softball would be in the 1996 Summer Olympics without a push from DeFrantz.

Harvey Schiller, former USOC executive director, declares that DeFrantz is “the voice of the Olympic movement in the United

States.” Anyone who heard that voice trembling with anger on that September 1988 night in Seoul, when Canadian sprinter Ben

Johnson was stripped of his gold medal after testing positive for an anabolic steroid, could not help but be moved. She called Johnson a “cheat” and a “coward.” Since then, she has been a leading proponent of the IOC’s war on banned substances. Concerned that their Olympics would become known as the “Drug Games,” officials from the organizing committee for the Atlanta Games were not in favor of using the most technologically advanced testing devices this summer. DeFrantz insisted, and won.

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She has backed down from fights with no one--not Schiller, not Samaranch, not Jimmy Carter. Especially not Carter. Sixteen years after the former president ordered the U.S. boycott of the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow, costing her a chance at a second medal and countless heartaches as she unsuccessfully sued the USOC to reject his mandate, she went to war when Carter was nominated to participate in this year’s torch relay. He gracefully bowed out, citing a prior commitment. Still, DeFrantz has been so effective and so diplomatic overall that, at age 43 and only 10 years after she became an IOC member, she is being discussed as a possible successor to Samaranch.

“I feel Anita is the most respected member of the IOC,” says Jim Easton of Los Angeles, the other U.S. member of the committee. “She comes up with answers that are rational, and everyone knows that there is not an agenda or any baggage behind them. She makes her decisions based on what she clearly believes is best for the Olympic Games.”

In that role, DeFrantz estimates that she travels about 250,000 miles a year. Considering her frenetic schedule for the last week, that would be reason alone for her to be on edge tonight. Six nights before, she was at USOC headquarters in Colorado Springs for a planning session. From there she flew to a meeting at IOC headquarters in Lausanne, Switzerland. Then it was home to Los Angeles, where as president of the Amateur Athletic Foundation she accepted a $45,000 donation from Mercedes-Benz. A red-eye to Atlanta followed.

Or could DeFrantz’s reticence be that she is simply nervous? It is well known within Olympic circles that she and the Atlanta organizing committee have had a stormy relationship, despite the fact that she campaigned hard for Atlanta prior to the IOC vote six years ago awarding the Games to the city, and that she sits on the committee’s board of directors. Still, she does not want to see them fail tonight in their first major test in front of Samaranch: the opening of the stadium. That giant light switch on the infield, which is to be flipped on at sundown, looks a little flimsy. She can just see the jokes in the national press, which is already making snide references to the “Bubba Games.”

She looks anxiously at her watch.

“Do you have a date?” someone asks.

“No,” she says, smiling sheepishly. “But I would like to get back to the hotel in time to see ‘The X-Files.’ It’s the season finale.”

not quite two weeks later, with atlanta’s centennial Olympic Stadium having successfully passed the test, DeFrantz is more relaxed.

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She sits in her office in the red brick, Corinthian-pillared mansion on West Adams Boulevard that houses the Amateur Athletic Foundation--thankful, she says, to take time out to reminisce. The AAF, which promotes youth sports, is Los Angeles’ gift from the 1984 Summer Olympics. With a $232.5-million surplus, organizers contributed $139.5 million to the USOC and $93 million for the formation of the AAF. DeFrantz became its second president in 1987.

The walls of her office are hung with photographs of her with Bill Clinton, with Al Gore. There are posters for the Atlanta games and the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan. A laminated cover from the Sporting News identifies her as one of the 100 most powerful people in sports, a list she has been on for the last five years. Looming behind her desk is a photograph of her and a teammate rowing on a misty morning on Lake Carnegie in Princeton, N.J.

DeFrantz had never even seen a rowing shell until her sophomore year at Connecticut College. While walking on campus one day, she spotted a man carrying a long, thin boat over his shoulder and asked him what it was. He told her it was a rowing shell. The man turned out to be rowing coach Bart Gulong, who told DeFrantz that she and her 5-11 frame would be perfect for the sport.

“I’d never been perfect for anything,” she says.

Gulong was right. A couple of years later, he told DeFrantz she was good enough to compete in the Olympics. DeFrantz hadn’t even known rowing was an Olympic sport, but she immediately made that her goal. After graduating from Connecticut College with honors in 1974, she faced a choice: the University of Pennsylvania Law School or a Coro Public Affairs Fellowship in Los Angeles.

“Here’s what it came down to,” she says. “I wanted to train at Vesper Boat Club in Philadelphia instead of Long Beach.”

Her coach there, the respected John Hooten, was never fooled. “She said she wanted to be a Philadelphia lawyer,” he says, “but I think she just liked the sound of it.” He was, however, fooled by her talent. He thought in her first year at Vesper in 1974 that she might eventually become a good rower. By the time the U.S. Olympic team was selected in 1976, she had become a great one. “She was the best starboard [right-side rower] in the country,” Hooten says. “She was in the seventh seat [the bow], which is very difficult because it requires you to be very smart and precise but also very aggressive.” DeFrantz rowed seventh seat for the U.S. Olympic eight-oared shell with coxswain in Montreal. The U.S. women finished third for the bronze medal behind the East Germans and Soviets. Hooten figures they would have finished second if the Soviets hadn’t gotten a lane that was sheltered from the wind. “For the U.S. team, the conditions were like ‘Victory at Sea,’ ” he says. “They were so exhausted that one of them, Marion Grieg, collapsed on the medal stand. But I never heard Anita whine. All she said afterward was that she wanted to come back in 1980 and win the gold.” Hooten encouraged her, but didn’t believe she could do it unless she moderated her schedule. While training for the 1976 Summer Olympics, DeFrantz was in law school and working nights at the Philadelphia police headquarters interviewing suspects. “I took a risk of either not graduating or not making the Olympic team,” she says, “but it was a valuable experience because I learned to talk to all kinds of people.” DeFrantz was admitted to the Pennsylvania State Bar in 1977 and went to work as a staff attorney for the Juvenile Law Center of Philadelphia. She also served on the board of directors of the Vesper Boat Club, the U.S. Rowing Assn. and the USOC as an athletes’ representative. She also became a trustee of Connecticut College. “She told me one day in 1978 that she had to miss a practice,” Hooten says. “I said, ‘Anita, you can’t continue to do all of this and still row for me.’ She said, ‘I know, but this one is kind of important. I have to testify before the Senate.’ ” She was lobbying on Capitol Hill for passage of the Amateur Sports Act, which clarified the USOC’s role in amateur athletics. Hooten once made her bring him a note signed by a senator to verify that she had an appointment with him. Despite her crush of commitments, Hooten believes, DeFrantz would have somehow won a gold medal in 1980. “If I had to line up everybody I’ve ever coached and rate who was strongest, who was tallest, who had the most leverage, I wouldn’t put Anita at the top in any individual category,” he says. “But she had a presence in the boat. I learned from her that some athletes have this will to win, this aura about them, that things are going to go their way and they’re going to make it happen.” In January 1980, while attending a friend’s birthday party, DeFrantz heard on television that President Carter had called upon the USOC to boycott the Summer Olympics in Moscow as one of the sanctions against the Soviet Union for invading Afghanistan. She was stunned. “He didn’t understand what the Olympic Games were,” she says, still angry 16 years later. “They don’t belong to a country. They’re a celebration in a country, but they belong to the world. He reduced the Olympics to the status of a trade embargo.” Her words were more stinging at the time. A Sports Illustrated reporter had asked, “What do you think about the fact that we are boycotting?” She snapped: “What do you mean we? Where were we when I was out on the lake in the winter freezing my butt off?”

Believing reason would prevail, DeFrantz took on the president before the USOC. Carter was concerned enough about her influence to send Vice President Walter F. Mondale to argue for the government. Spellbound by her passionate words, USOC members listened as she told them that they knew the right choice but needed only the courage to make it. They gave her a standing ovation. Then they voted her down. “They were medical miracles, guys who could walk upright without a spine,” she says.

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She showed hers by becoming the plaintiff in a lawsuit against the USOC. Again, she lost.

“I got hate mail and hate phone calls. People were coming to my door claiming they were sympathizers and I knew they were from the FBI. I was a mess. I was depressed, I was exhausted, I was sick. I had a dark shadow over me. I felt I had let the team down by not getting them into the Olympics.”

The team felt not at all let down by DeFrantz.

“She just never gave up,” says Carol Brown, a rowing teammate enlisted by DeFrantz to fight the boycott. “We’d run up against another obstacle, and I’d say, ‘Hey, it’s not worth it.’ But Anita would say, ‘No, there’s one more chance. Let’s try this.’ ”

Even with the distractions, DeFrantz made the team in the four-oared shell with coxswain in 1980, and while the U.S. rowers did not go to Moscow, they did travel to Europe for competitions. In Germany, the team presented her with a plaque that read: “Our sincere appreciation to you for your dedicated commitment to our Olympic cause.”

Showing it off, she says now, “It made me proud ... but I still would rather have had a gold medal.”

one morning in june, defrantz stands on the football field at Compton Community College as 18 busloads of fourth- and fifth-graders arrive from around the city for the AAF’s annual two-week “Learn and Play Olympic Sports” program.

“Come meet Sam the Eagle,” the announcer tells the children. “You remember--no, you might be too young to remember--Sam was the mascot for the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. This is also a chance for you to say hello to Anita DeFrantz, president of the Amateur Athletic Foundation.”

The children ignore DeFrantz and head straight for the strutting, yellow-feathered, big-beaked Sam to exchange high-fives. If DeFrantz’s feathers are ruffled, it does not show. Here, at the grass-roots level, is where she believes she serves best. About 8,000 children from 42 elementary schools throughout the Los Angeles Unified School District will participate in the program this year. It starts in the classrooms with a curriculum, provided by the AAF, that uses Olympic history to help teach social studies, geography, languages and mathematics. “Then they get to come out and play some of the sports they’ve learned about,” DeFrantz says.

Neither sports nor social activism is new to the DeFrantz family. She is a descendant of slaves, the great-great granddaughter of a Louisiana plantation owner from the Alsace-Lorraine region of France and one of his female servants from Africa’s Gold Coast. Their son, Alonzo, was educated and then emancipated by his father. When Benjamin “Pap” Singleton, also a former slave, began organizing newly freed blacks in 1877 to move to the prairies of Kansas, Alonzo David DeFrantz became the movement’s secretary-treasurer. One of his sons, Fayburn Edward DeFrantz--Anita’s grandfather--became director of the Senate Avenue YMCA in Indianapolis. The “Big Chief,” as he was known, was not content to merely change the nets on the basketball hoops. After church Sunday afternoons, he organized “Monster Meetings” and invited as speakers some of the day’s most prominent African Americans, including W.E.B. DuBois, Langston Hughes, George Washington Carver, Paul Robeson, artist Hale Woodruff and the NAACP’s executive secretary from 1931-'55, Walter White. Anita’s father, Robert David DeFrantz, and mother, Anita, met at Indiana University in Bloomington, where he was head of the university’s NAACP chapter and she was among the first African American women to integrate on-campus housing.

“Our parents made sure that we were always aware,” DeFrantz says of herself and her three brothers. “They drove us once to a town about 20 miles away where the Grand Dragon of the KKK lived. There was a sign there that they knew was about to be taken down. It said, ‘Nigger, Don’t Be Here After Dark.’ They just wanted to make sure we saw it before it was gone. I was only 4 or 5 at the time, but I never forgot it.” Robert David was eager for his children to become active in sports. “My father wanted one of my brothers and me to be the first African Americans on the U.S. Olympic swimming team,” Anita says.

Robert David, who died in 1984, no doubt would be sad to learn that his goal is still out there for some other father’s child to achieve. There are, however, more opportunities than when Anita swam at the Frederick Douglass Park pool in Indianapolis in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. A swimming instructor at the public park for African Americans fielded a team, but because the pool was open for only a couple of months in the summers, it was folly to think that the swimmers could compete against white kids who swam at country clubs. When the instructor left for another city, the team folded. Later, at Shortridge High School in Indianapolis, Anita DeFrantz found plenty of sports for African Americans, but none for girls.

“I joined the marching band. That’s the closest I got to the field of play.” She gestures at the Compton football field. “That’s why it’s fun for me to give these kids the chance.”

DeFrantz excuses herself to join some of the 896 students from eight schools gathered today.

“Say hello to Anita DeFrantz,” the announcer repeats. “She’s from rowing, the noblest sport.”

during international Olympic committee sessions, the 104 members sit according to the order in which they were elected. Before she was named to the executive board and placed at the front of the room, DeFrantz sat two seats from Prince Albert of Monaco and five from Princess Anne of Great Britain. In the IOC directory, Prince Albert lists his address as Palais Princier, Monte Carlo. Princess Anne lists hers as Buckingham Palace, London. DeFrantz lives in a modest, two-bedroom, two-bath California bungalow on a side street in Santa Monica. She jokingly calls it her “urban estate.”

She was elected to the IOC in 1986 because Peter Ueberroth wasn’t. Tired of law because it “was more about cleverness and making money than truth, justice and the American way,” DeFrantz came to Los Angeles in 1981, at the behest of Ueberroth, to serve as a vice president of the organizing committee for the 1984 Summer Games. Her primary responsibility was the athletes’ village at USC, but she was called upon to meet bigger challenges. After the British government approved a South African runner, Zola Budd, as part of its team because her grandfather was English, DeFrantz was assigned by Ueberroth to stave off a threatened boycott. As a result of her efforts, only Soviet sympathizers Ethiopia and Upper Volta among the African countries did not attend the L.A. Games. That further impressed the IOC, which had awarded DeFrantz the Bronze Medal of the Olympic Order for her leadership role in the fight against the USOC boycott in 1980. When one of the two IOC members from the United States, Julian Roosevelt, died in 1986, DeFrantz was on the short list to replace him. Samaranch backed Ueberroth, but other committee members resented the unflattering references Ueberroth had made about them in his autobiography, “Made In America.” They insisted on someone else. That someone was DeFrantz. “I’m glad I was elected,” DeFrantz says. “But Peter would have been a wonderful choice and should have been a member.”

But DeFrantz fit better into Samaranch’s big-tent approach to the IOC, which under his stewardship was attempting to shed its reputation as a bastion of elderly, rich, powerful white males. DeFrantz, then only 34, was the first black elected to the committee from a non-African country, the fifth woman and hardly rich. Today, there are still only seven women among the 104 members, but as recently as 1994 two served on the 11-member executive board. “In a way, it surprises me that she has risen so fast,” says Hooten, her former rowing coach. “I think of the IOC as a bunch of old fogys. Now there is this very young woman who has become one of the most powerful persons in all of sport. At the same time, I’m not surprised at all. She’s just about the most effective person I’ve ever been around at committee meetings. I’ve been to some rather stormy meetings, and there is one solid voice of reason at the center of the whole thing. That’s Anita.” Despite her diplomatic skills, DeFrantz is considered no one’s yes woman--not even Samaranch’s. After she opposed him once on an issue, Samaranch asked Alfredo La Mont, the USOC’s director of international relations, if DeFrantz were loyal. “I told him, ‘Mr. President, loyalty has nothing to do with it; she does what she thinks is best for the movement,’ ” La Mont says. “He told me he respects that.” Far more of her battles have come with the USOC. She took an oath to be the IOC’s representative in the United States, not the other way around. When some USOC officials felt in 1994 that she had carried her independence too far, they discussed removing her and Easton from the USOC’s executive committee. When the USOC’s president, LeRoy Walker, heard about it, he angrily put a stop to the talk. Evidence of DeFrantz’s unapologetic approach is seldom seen in the media. Indeed, she tried unsuccessfully to prevent her objections to Carter serving as one of this year’s torch-bearers from becoming public. “I didn’t want it to become a big issue,” she says. She has been criticized by some for stepping a little too carefully to avoid political rockslides, which have been known to bury outspoken IOC members. But those who know DeFrantz well contend that she prefers to confront her foes face to face rather than have them read her opinions in the newspaper. Says former USOC executive director Schiller, now president of Turner Sports in Atlanta: “She and I had a very, very direct relationship. If she didn’t like something, she would pick up the phone and say it. And vice versa. She was particularly outspoken when she didn’t think there was enough minority representation on the USOC staff. She is a strong, strong willed person.” “Some people within the organization still don’t give her the respect she deserves,” says Brown, her former rowing teammate, who chairs the USOC’s athlete support committee. “She’s not part of the old boy’s network and they know she can’t be bought or coerced. She’s going to speak her mind.”

No one knows that better than the Atlanta Olympics committee officials, whom she has tangled with almost from the time they began organizing the Games in 1991. They wanted to add golf to the program and hold it at the Augusta National Golf Club, which historically had not been particularly welcoming to African American or women (The club admitted its first black member in 1990 and still has no women.) DeFrantz balked. The committee backed down. They have fought on a number of issues since, mostly about money. She believes that they have spent too much of their $1.7 billion budget on themselves and not enough on the 10,000 athletes who will compete. “They didn’t want to hear from me,” she says. “I realize now that I should have ignored that and asserted myself more. The Games will be OK. But they could have been more than OK.”

Considering her position within the IOC and the USOC, there is little question that DeFrantz is the most powerful woman in international sport. But when asked about that, she seems almost insulted: “So what? I don’t have anything particularly glorious to say about it.”

She does, however, discuss speculation that she might someday become IOC president. “I think about it, but then I remember all the work involved,” she says. “It depends on how courageous and bold I might be when the time comes. I’d be very careful to consider all the challenges.”

For all of her power, she surrounds herself with few of the trappings. “She doesn’t have an entourage like some IOC members,” La Mont says. “She has a sense of humor and doesn’t take herself too seriously.”

“She’s an ordinary person,” adds Valerie Steiner, a friend for the last decade. “Whoever she is out there in the world, she’s a very easy person to be with.” Even though, Steiner says, she tends toward backseat driving.

on this particular evening in June, DeFrantz is eating takeout Chinese food and sipping California red wine at her dining room table. She has given a guest a tour of the house and the garden, which she enjoys tending when she is at home.

She removes the cover from a rowing machine on the back porch, admitting that it has been neglected.

“Dust,” she says. “Imagine that.”

Rowing is for the water, she adds in her defense. For exercise, she hikes, bicycles and plays tennis. When not busy with her numerous causes--Martin Luther King Jr. Legacy Fund, Yosemite Institute, KCET, National Conference on Christians and Jews--she reads, plays her bassoon or goes to the movies.

She took ballroom dancing lessons after joining the IOC. “I was in Vienna with the IOC in ’88,” she says. “There was a live band. At the time, there were five or six women on the IOC and about 95 men. I realized the chances of me being asked to dance were pretty good. I figured I’d better learn how.”

She came home and enrolled in classes at Ballroom Magic in Inglewood. Inevitably, she entered competitions. She has ribbons and medals.

“Maybe some day, I’ll have my dancing partner,” she says.

She has never been married, but she says that she did come close a couple of times to being engaged. “I saw the light,” she says. “It wasn’t the end of the tunnel; it was a train coming in my direction. I have just about given up the thought of having a child. I don’t know if I’ve given up the thought of having a family.” She says that she is dating someone who has children, but she will not identify him. “I don’t want to scare this one away.” Friends, she is told, are concerned that she has made too many sacrifices because of her work. She considers the possibility for a moment.

“I don’t believe people make sacrifices,” DeFrantz says finally. “People make choices. That’s the approach I take. I made a decision to do these things. I believed I could make a difference. I find it fulfilling to work with children. I love kids. I have 3 million of them in Los Angeles.”

And for her, in the end, that is the noblest of causes.


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