Anita DeFrantz could not have possibly fathomed that, when she competed for the U.S. Rowing team during the 1976 Olympic Games in Montreal, that she would ever serve on the all-powerful International Olympic Committee. In fact, she didn’t even know that such a governing body existed initially.
Today, DeFrantz is an executive board member of the International Olympic Committee. She was elected to the IOC in 1986 and is currently the only African American woman on the executive board. In 1997, she became the first African American woman in history to be elected as vice president of the IOC executive board.
But DeFrantz had to initially get acquainted with the organization and what its role was back during her competitive days.
“As a matter of fact, I tell the truthful story that, one day after practice while I was at the Olympic games in Montreal, one of my teammates tells me ‘if we get a medal, the Lord will give it to us.” And I said ‘yeah, Divine Providence is important to have.” And she said, ‘No, you nitwit, Lord Calana, who is the head of the International Olympic Committee,” DeFrantz recalls.
“Up until then, I hadn’t thought about who would present the medal. I was focused on trying to win. And that was the first time that I realized that the IOC even existed; that the IOC was somehow connected to the Olympic games. We had just learned of the U.S. Olympic Committee when we went to get our uniforms and we met members of the USOC.”
DeFrantz had already graduated from Connecticut College and was nearly finished with her law degree at the University of Pennsylvania when she and her compatriots won a bronze medal win at the ’76 Games. DeFrantz was convinced that she could place higher four years later and was determined to try for the gold at the 1980 Moscow Olympics. She won a silver medal at the 1978 World Championships and was a United States National Champion six times.
However, when Russia invaded Afghanistan, President Carter ordered United States to boycott the 1980 Olympics. Undeterred, DeFrantz was extremely disheartened but used her legal education at Penn to file a lawsuit based upon her conviction that it was the athlete’s choice to compete and no one could force an athlete to go or not go to the Olympics. She lost the lawsuit but she received a medal for her efforts from the IOC.
Immediately after law school at Penn, DeFrantz worked as an attorney in a juvenile law center. But, even after she ceased to compete as an Olympic rower, the Olympics became the center of her professional life. She has worked ever since to shape the Olympic experience so that it promotes pure and clean sports.
“This was a new world to me. (Thoughts) to become a member of the IOC? That was impossible. And still (seems) impossible that I’m a senior member of the Olympic movement in the United States of America and I have been a member since 1992. It’s been a long, wonderful run,” she said.
While in Russia, DeFrantz’s main goal was to ensure the athletes were safe and had an enjoyable athletic experience. She said, “The Olympic Games is a celebration of human excellence. Since the 1972 Olympic Games, the International Olympic Committee [has ensured the Games] will be secure.
“The governance board meets four times a year. Most people don’t know that. It’s an international organization with members who live all around the world. We make sure that the annual session is set. We make sure the policy is put into action for the governance for the Olympic Games.
“I was absent from the board but I wasn’t absent from what was going on in the world of sports, particularly in the United States. I’ve been involved in youth sports all the way from K up to adults. My daily job has to do with sports. So I have a vast amount of knowledge about sports and what goes on in the sports world.”
DeFrantz was a part of the U.S. rowing team and won a bronze medal at the 1976 Olympic games. In 1980, DeFrantz showcased her leadership by opposing the United States’ ban on attending the Olympic Games in Moscow. Unlike the 1980s, DeFrantz attended the 2014 Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia. Though she has attended the Olympic Games around the world, her inaugural games in Montreal will always remain her favorite.
“The first one is my favorite. It changes your life when you attend for the first time. It has a profound affect on you. And for me, it was competing in Montreal. And I’m living in the Olympic Village, and I realized that we all can get along,” she said.
“And if we can get along for the three to four weeks we are together at the Olympics, then we should be able to get along forever. And so the games showed that we can live in peace. And I believe that.”