Anita L. DeFrantz, America’s powerful Olympic presence

L.A. Times columnist Patt Morrison discusses Anita DeFrantz, a bronze medalist in the first Olympics that allowed female rowers, in 1976, and now a member of the delegation representing the U.S. at the Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia.


Anita L. DeFrantz has her bags packed for the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia — but heck, she’s had her bags packed for athletic events around the world for the last 40 years, as a competitor and as a member of the International Olympic Committee (currently on the executive board) and the U.S. Olympic Committee (board member). DeFrantz was a bronze medalist in the first Olympics that allowed female rowers, in 1976. In her “free” time, she heads the LA84 Foundation, a legacy of L.A.’s 1984 Olympic Games that has brought sports opportunities to more than 2 million children. The executive who’s been called the most powerful woman in sports has a few thoughts before dashing off to Sochi.

Sochi was chosen seven years ago. That’s a long time in the spotlight for a country and its leaders. Russia passed what’s being called an anti-gay law. President Vladimir Putin freed Greenpeace protesters and the Pussy Riot women, evidently to make himself look better ahead of the Games.

I don’t think he’d say that!

That’s a good reason to host the Games — you get to release political prisoners! A good reason to host the Games in Beijing was that child labor laws went into effect. We could not allow them to be using kids that way [under the Olympic charter and contracts], and we kept saying, “How are your children being treated?”


We can’t demand that they change the law in Russia; that’s not the way we work. But look what we have done: They had to forgo the use of the law. We’re able to [accomplish] things differently.

In October, the USOC explicitly included sexual orientation in its anti-discrimination rules.

We’ve never cared about sexual orientation. We wanted to make sure the athletes knew that for us there would be no discrimination at the Games. We got many interpretations of the [Russian] law [which limits discussion of “nontraditional sexual relations”], and no one is really clear. We wanted to be clear to the world and to the people of Russia, the host, that sexual orientation is not an issue for us and must not be the basis of discrimination.

What does the IOC look for in a host city? Some cities have everything the Games need, and others, like Sochi, are underdeveloped.

The Russians said: “We do not have a training center for winter sports. [The USSR] built facilities in the [old Soviet] republics and now the republics are on their own, so Russia doesn’t have those facilities. [Getting the Games] is important for the future of winter sports in Russia. That’s how they pitched their Games. The investment will be there for many years; it’s not just for two weeks.

Everyone knew there was not much in Sochi; it would have to be built. The estimate for how much it would cost was, shall we say, off the mark. [Early estimate, $12 billion; current estimate, $51 billion.] One IOC member famously said the bid documents are the most amazing fiction you’ll ever read!


Now Rio de Janeiro, host of the 2016 Summer Games, is having water-quality problems.

Rio also said it had all the money in the world. The fiction of the bids is all the more painful when I think about what Chicago had to offer. We believe [after seeing the bids], the chosen city has the capability of producing the Games, so it’s up to the city. They can solve that water problem, and they have to.

How did the 1984 Games change L.A.?

They brought the democratization of the Games. They were able to [successfully] reach out to sources other than government. The private sector can be more generous with funds for their own purposes; they’re doing it for business reasons. The surplus [went] back into sports. And the city has continued to grow with major venues for sports. L.A. could host the Games this year if we had to; we would only use the Coliseum and Rose Bowl [from 1984]. It’s amazing for a city to be able to say that.

One of your goals is upping the number of women in sports at every level; it was 44% in London in 2012.

Between 1988 and 2012, we more than doubled the number of women who had competed from 1900 to 1984. Every Olympic nation is expected to have women Olympians.


It’s far too slow for my liking. There’s a group of women in Saudi Arabia playing basketball. They’re learning to play now so that someday they will be able to play at the Olympic level. My next goal is to help women athletes become part of the governance of sports.

When you were an athlete, you sued the USOC over the 1980 U.S. boycott of the Moscow Olympics. Did the boycott accomplish anything?

Alas, the Soviets didn’t come [to L.A.] in 1984, so that was absolutely payback. By the way, those [Moscow] Games were very successful. I can now say that even if some countries misbehave, we are pretty good at making sure athletes can compete [anyway]. Many countries in 1980 competed under the Olympic flag instead of their national flag.

Other governments invest directly in the Olympics, but not the U.S.

On balance I believe that’s a good thing. I’ve watched other countries toy with things, and I would not want the U.S. team to have to be dependent on the vagaries of politicians. It’s much harder [raising money] this way, but I think it’s better. We had hoped to get more support for Paralympic athletes; that has not worked as well as we hoped.

The U.S. team is supported by U.S. citizens. We say America doesn’t send a team — Americans do. The U.S. government has never supported the team [financially]. They protect the team [at the Games], but there’s no investment in developing the team.


The money from broadcast rights is so important to the Games. How much is TV accommodated?

The IOC staff learns from the rights holders what their goals are, but they have to accommodate athletes most of all. There’ve been a very few times when television has decided something. They might say, “Let’s see whether we can have swimming at 8 o’clock instead of noon. [The concern is], does it make a difference for the athletes?

[Through TV rights] the United States is still the most generous nation supporting the Olympic movement. So the TV rights are important.

Aren’t Americans all about winning the gold?

It was so sad: I was asked many times, “Did you win a gold medal?” And I would say no, and it was like [she gestures that people would turn away]. That’s not the end of the discussion! You can ask me if I won a medal. If I can continue the conversation, people are very supportive that I was able to win the bronze medal. But sometimes it’s just — can you wait one more second on that gold medal thing?

New rules were put into place after the Salt Lake City Games’ bribery scandal in the late 1990s.


Now there’s much more clarity about what you can and cannot do. It’s tough because how do you tell people to just leave the IOC members alone? IOC members cannot go to a city as a guest of that city anymore. One city really suffered from that: Chicago. Most people in the world don’t know what a beautiful city Chicago is. So I can say with absolute confidence that Chicago [which lost the U.S. bid for the 2016 Games] was hurt because IOC members weren’t able to travel there.

Are the IOC doping rules strict enough?

We just changed so the first sanction can be four years [instead of two years], which means you can’t come to the next Games, which I think makes a big difference. I come from a sport where we didn’t want anybody ever to come back if they [doped].

There are State Department travel advisories for Sochi; what about security?

I want to make sure the athletes know, probably the safest place on Earth will be at the Games. The U.S. is involved with security and will absolutely make sure our team and spectators will be secure.

What if athletes are tempted to make a political statement at the Games?


There’s a rule [against] political stuff. It’s important because the Games will collapse if they become political. If you explain it to athletes this way, even those committed to doing something realize they’re hurting future opportunities. You can do a lot of things outside those two weeks.

You want Americans to support Olympic athletes after the Games.

Once the Games are over, a month later, I challenge you to name 10 [Olympians]. We love athletics, we love the moment, really proud that they’ve won, but then it’s back to: “What have you done for me lately?”

This interview was edited and excerpted from a taped transcript. Twitter: @pattlatimes