Anita DeFrantz's Olympic life

Anita DeFrantz grew up near Indianapolis. If your perception of Indiana is all “Hoosiers” basketball and corn fields swaying in the midwestern summer sun, know, too, that Indiana was once a Ku Klux Klan mainstay. And that when she was just 3 — this was in the 1950s — Anita’s parents took her and her brother out for a drive just outside Greeenwood, Indiana, where, after walking through the snow, her father read them this sign:

“Don’t be here after dark — nigger.”

This story opens “My Olympic Life,” Anita DeFrantz’s forthcoming memoir, written with Josh Young, and what she says about that experience when she was just a little girl explains almost everything.

DeFrantz at the Rio 2016 Games // Getty Images

DeFrantz at the Rio 2016 Games // Getty Images

“Now I can see that it planted a seed in my personal constitution that ultimately led me to spend the rest of my life speaking up at the first blush of any injustice.”

For more than 40 years, DeFrantz has been an activist and an advocate — speaking up, trying to effect change, not caring so much or even at all about the personal consequence of daring to fail. It’s, you know, the only way to be the change you want to see in the world.

On any short list of American women in sports who over those 40 or so years have made a difference in our world, Anita DeFrantz would be at or near the top of that list. She is, as she notes in the book, an answer on “Jeopardy” — the first African-American member of the International Olympic Committee.

That “first,” though, as she writes, is just a “small step toward inclusion,” and inclusion is, time and again, the touchstone of her life’s work and the theme of this memoir — from her declaration in the preface that the “central tenant of the Olympic movement is inclusion” to this, in Chapter 24:

“I see the Olympic movement, both at home and around the world, as being inclusive of different races, cultures and religions. The strength of the Olympic movement relies on its inclusion — not on singling out any one individual’s accomplishments, while recognizing excellence and appreciating effort.”

She acknowledges in that preface that the story of the so-called Olympic family is “vast, complicated and messy.” At the same time, it is “also an inspiring and enduring story of individuals from all walks of life coming together.”

DeFrantz at USA House at the Rio Games // Getty Images

DeFrantz at USA House at the Rio Games // Getty Images

This is why, after these many years, DeFrantz is, truly, also an ambassador for the Olympic movement, in the United States and abroad. 

This memoir documents how all that came to be — even if, way back when, none of any of that was ever envisioned.

To be clear: 

One day there will be a book that tells the snarky back story about the Salt Lake bribery scandal of the 1990s. This is not that book, though there is a long chapter about the scandal. Salt Lake won the Games in 1995 after wooing IOC members and their relatives with more than $1 million cash, gifts and other inducements; in response, 10 IOC members were expelled and the IOC enacted a 50-point reform plan.

One day there will be a gossipy memoir that dishes about what it was really like serving with the likes of the IOC presidents Juan Antonio Samaranch, Jacques Rogge and Thomas Bach. This is not that book, either.

To move in Olympic circles — DeFrantz has now been elected vice president twice — requires politesse and diplomacy. The book, perhaps naturally, glides over some of the rough patches; with the IOC, there are always rough patches (see, for instance, Beijing 2008, Sochi 2014); DeFrantz likely still has many years remaining of IOC service; and of course, Los Angeles now has a 2028 Summer Games to put on.

Asked about the IOC’s decision to take the Games to those two nations, DeFrantz said in an interview, “I’m not trying to defend. I’m trying to explain it. I believe in liberty. I believe people should be able to express themselves. 

“The first time I went to China, to Beijing,” in 1990, when as she recalled bicycles ruled the streets, “I left early. It was overwhelming to me that so many people were under such control. Among these people had to be geniuses, and they had to be very capable and they weren’t allowed to express all that they could express, and I come from a country where that is supposed to happen — freedom of speech and being able to work for all that you are supposed to be able to work for.”  

About the IOC itself, which is often depicted in the press as elite and out of touch, she said, “What I would tell is the real history of the IOC. There are so many suppositions or beliefs,” adding a moment later, “I think people want the IOC to be more mysterious and more aloof than it is. When you start wanting it to be something in part so you can tear it down — when we fail, when a member fails, it’s a huge tragedy. When an athlete dopes, that, too, is a huge failure of the Olympic movement.”

This, though, is not that book. To be clear once more, that is not a criticism. That is an observation.

That is so because this is a memoir, and it is best when telling the story of DeFrantz, her family and her — unexpected — journey.

The three current U.S. IOC members pitching for the LA 28 candidacy in Lima: Larry Probst, chair of the U.S. Olympic Committee; DeFrantz; Angela Ruggiero, chair of the IOC athletes' commission // Getty Images

The three current U.S. IOC members pitching for the LA 28 candidacy in Lima: Larry Probst, chair of the U.S. Olympic Committee; DeFrantz; Angela Ruggiero, chair of the IOC athletes' commission // Getty Images

A lawyer and winner of a bronze medal in rowing at the 1976 Montreal Games, she challenged the U.S.-led boycott of the 1980 Moscow Games. 

Being in the Olympic village in Montreal was where, DeFrantz said, her life really took a turn. She saw the possibility of real inclusion — there weren’t yet that many women.

“Once you get that,” she said, “you realize that it’s about inclusion — it really is a belief I have. I’m a true believer.”

An IOC member since 1986, DeFrantz has over the many years been a relentless advocate for equity and equality, on behalf of athletes and in particular women. The first female IOC vice president (to reiterate, a position she holds again now), DeFrantz has urged national Olympic committees throughout the world to send female athletes to the Games; pushed the IOC to achieve 50-50 female-male parity on the field of play; to add disciplines, events and sports (for instance, softball); and to add female decision-makers to commissions and executive boards. 

The IOC is nearing 50-50 participation in the Summer Games; in London in 2012 every nation that sent a delegation sent at least one female athlete; and just weeks ago the IOC elected four women to its 15-person policy-making executive board, DeFrantz and three others.

For more than 25 years, DeFrantz served as head of the legacy initiative of the 1984 Los Angeles Summer Games, what is now called the LA84 Foundation. Few Olympic institutions have proven so successful, awarding millions of dollars in grants in support of youth sports.

Her IOC position has afforded DeFrantz incredible opportunities, of course, but also a multitude of disappointments. For instance, when she was IOC first vice president, she ran for IOC president in 2001, when every clue suggested a European was all but sure to win, and indeed did — Rogge, who is from Belgium.

The book contains a big — personal — reveal. DeFrantz was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1991. For all these years, she has kept that hidden from the public. A few in her inner circle have known. 

Why reveal it now?

The time just seemed right, she said.

And why — since she has been an activist and advocate for so many other causes — did she simply not tell the world long ago she had MS? 

“I know that people treat you differently when it’s an illness,” she said. “I didn’t want to be treated differently.”

Inclusion, remember. That is the hallmark of Anita DeFrantz’s life.