An Olympic Athlete And Board Member On The Next Fight In Sports And What Millennials Get Right

A Q&A with bronze medal-winner Anita L. DeFrantz

Growing up in a family active in promoting civil rights, Anita L. DeFrantz knew the importance of letting her voice be heard as an African-American and as a young woman, from an early age.

Before she joined the ranks of the International Olympic Committee — becoming not only the first African-American, but also the first American woman to serve on the committee in 1986 — DeFrantz captained the U.S. women’s rowing team and rowed in the team that won a bronze medal at the 1976 Montreal Olympic Games.

In 1987, DeFrantz began her 28-year role stewarding the legacy of the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, as president of the LA84 Foundation, a nonprofit organization that has invested more than $225 million to support more than 2,000 youth sports organizations and continues to provide L.A. youth with recreation and sports opportunities.

In 1992, she was elected to the IOC Executive Board and the IOC’s Program Commission. In 1997, she became the organization’s first female vice president, a position she held until 2001. DeFrantz also served on the IOC’s Summer Program Commission, which determines the sports included in Olympic competition. She is credited with getting women’s softball and soccer, as well as the vast increase in the number of opportunities for women’s competition, on the Olympic programs.

Image courtesy of Anita L. DeFrantz.

In her new memoir, “My Olympic Life,” DeFrantz reveals how she fought sexual harassment, helped change outdated gender verification rules, pushed forward the introduction of women’s events, cracked down on doping, and influenced new eligibility requirements, as an advocate for athletes worldwide.

GOOD caught up with DeFrantz to find out what she’s currently working on in sports and beyond:

What do you think are the most urgent issues in international sports right now?

The role of women needs to be greatly expanded. Women need to be decision-makers on boards. We’ve been saying this since at least 2000 at the IOC as an official policy. The IOC has been successful on the field of play in increasing the number of positions for women athletes, and there will be a great increase in Tokyo in 2020. We missed the mark in the Olympic Winter Games. In Sochi, the number of spaces for men greatly outnumbered those for women. It will take us a while to correct that. With the new disciplines brought in, it was almost 2:1 spaces for men versus women, so we lost ground there. But by the 2024 Olympic games, it should be 50:50. At the Olympic Youth Games in Buenos Aires next year, it should be 50:50 because we have more control over that. We’re getting there.

Among the problems I think we’ll be able to solve when we have more people with different viewpoints will be things like doping and the potential outcome of that, which has been an issue since I was competing.

At the youth level, how can we best instill the values of “mutual respect and fair play”?

Shaking hands after a game or sports event is done across the world. It’s done at the Olympic Games. It’s done in international sports. If we can’t do that in our own nation, something is seriously wrong with the way games are being conducted.

I would start with asking, who are the coaches? How are they allowing that to happen? Too often we give people — volunteers, typically — a clipboard and a whistle and say, “Now you’re a coach” without any instruction. One of the things I’m very proud of that the LA84 Foundation did was create a coaching program that was offered for free so people could learn how to coach. By the time I left (I was president for 28 years), more than 70,000 people had used that coaching program. When you learn how to coach, you can do a better job and your athletes know you know what you’re doing.

Which lessons from being an athlete do you still use in your personal and professional life today?

One of the things I learned from my family is not only to ask why, but also to ask why not. I was in college before I had a chance to take part in organized sports, and then, while I was training for the Olympics, I was in law school. But the most important thing is critical thinking. It’s something we need to do more of in this country. We need to ask questions if something seems not quite right.

Much of what we talk about in sports is also what we talk about in business. The question is: Are we ethical as we teach kids about sports, and are we ethical in how we approach business and in how we approach life? I’ve been delighted to learn that this is a focus for the millennials. I hope they will do more. I’ve long said the Olympic movement is based on fair play and mutual respect and is devoted to inclusion. I’ve realized we can extend this beyond the Olympic Village.

via David Leavitt / Twitter

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