By STEPHEN WILSON
Anita DeFrantz has been an IOC member for more than 30 years, has served multiple times on the decision-making Executive Board and is currently on her second stint as an IOC Vice President.
Anita DeFrantz has been an IOC member since 1986. (ATR)
A former Olympic rower who is the highest-ranking American on the IOC, DeFrantz is preparing to take part in a series of virtual IOC meetings this week, starting with an Executive Board meeting Wednesday and the all-members Session on Friday.
The online meetings replace those that normally would have taken place in Tokyo on the eve of the 2020 Olympic Games, which have been postponed for a year due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Speaking from her home in Santa Monica, California, DeFrantz expounded on a range of issues, including preparations for the rescheduled Tokyo Games, Rule 50 and athlete protests, and the 40th anniversary of the 1980 Moscow Games and her continuing bitterness over the U.S. boycott.
Amid continuing uncertainty over whether the Games can go ahead next year in the face of the still-evolving coronavirus crisis, DeFrantz feels “optimistic’’ about the Games in 2021.
IOC President Thomas Bach with Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike (IOC)
“I’m almost certain that all the big hurdles have been put aside,’’ she said, adding: “Now that the election season (in Japan) is over we won’t hear as many people bad-mouthing the Games.”
DeFrantz was referring to the recent re-election of Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike, a strong supporter of the Games. Some of her rivals had campaigned against the Games.
“The governor is still the governor,’’ DeFrantz said. “She knows what we’ve been going through. I think we’re in good shape.”
She also cited progress in securing the Olympic Village for the Games, a key venue which had not yet been guaranteed for 2021.
“We’re in the process and it looks good,” DeFrantz said. “Putting off the Games for a year is no joke. We want to do our best for the athletes who have trained for years.”
Housing more than 10,000 athletes and 5,000 officials in a single Olympic Village would seem improbable today amid the coronavirus restrictions. Securing a safe environment for athletes next year will be a major challenge.
“We’re working on it,” said DeFrantz, who managed the Olympic Village at the 1984 Los Angeles Games. “We just don’t know (how the pandemic will play out). This is a new affliction. We don’t want people taking unnecessary risks.”
The possibility of athletes going into quarantine before the Games has been mooted. Holding the Games with no spectators or with a restricted number of fans has also been mentioned.
“I’m sure everything’s on the table as long as it can help,” DeFrantz said. “If you don’t protect human life, what’s the point?”
A number of athlete and advocacy groups have been calling on the IOC to loosen or abolish Rule 50, which states: "No kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas."
Hammer thrower Gwen Berry was one of two USA athletes put on probation by USOPC for medal ceremony protests at last year's Pan Am Games. (Lima 2019)
Guidelines issued by the IOC in January stated that athletes in Tokyo could express their opinions at press conferences and on social media but specified that political gestures such as kneeling were prohibited. Disciplinary action would be taken on a case-by-case basis.
The issue has gained prominence in the wake of the death of George Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis and the subsequent widespread demonstrations for racial and social justice.
IOC President Thomas Bach said last month that Rule 50 would be reviewed as part of a consultation process conducted by the IOC Athletes Commission, chaired by Executive Board member Kirsty Coventry.
“I’m certainly interested in learning what the athletes have come up with,’’ said DeFrantz, an athlete activist herself who fought against the U.S. boycott of the Moscow Games. “I trust athletes. I know that, depending on where you are in the world, interest in having protests or whatever is varied, so we’ll see.”
DeFrantz said her view is that athletes who want to speak out should do so now using social media. Protesting on the medal stand is not appropriate, she said.
“You don’t have to wait a year to be on the podium or in the venues to do something,” she said. “I’m encouraging U.S. athletes to take action now. Don’t wait a year. Maybe a lot will have changed in a year.”
At the Games, DeFrantz said, athletes will still have the opportunity to voice their opinions through social media, interviews and news conferences.
“That way athletes can be specific about what they see as the issues in their country,” she said.
DeFrantz won a bronze medal in rowing at Montreal 1976. (Team USA)
While racism is a problem in many countries, other political and social issues are also at stake around the world, DeFrantz said.
“If everybody wants to use the podium for 206 sets of issues, it’s going to be a problem,” she said.
DeFrantz stood on the medal podium herself at the 1976 Montreal Olympic Games after she and her U.S. teammates won bronze in the women’s coxed eights event.
“It was such a privilege to have the opportunity to be on the podium,” she said. “I don’t want any athlete to be denied the opportunity because of a momentary thing. If people are motivated to do something, do it now.’’
“Work on it now when you can make a difference,’’ she added. “Doing something on the podium will certainly hurt other athletes and the other athletes on the podium. It will take away from their experience.”
DeFrantz missed out on competing in a second Olympics when President Jimmy Carter ordered the U.S. boycott of the 1980 Moscow Games following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
The move prevented a 500-strong U.S. team from going to the Games, including 219 athletes who lost their only chance of competing in an Olympics.
DeFrantz talks with reporters about the boycott controversy.
With July 19 marking the 40th anniversary of the opening of the Moscow Games, DeFrantz remains unforgiving.
‘’I’m still mad,” she said. “Something was taken from me that should not have been taken and cannot ever be given back. It was just a political ploy that changed the lives of 500 Americans forever. And for nothing.”
DeFrantz was an outspoken critic who testified before Congress, met with U.S. administration officials and filed lawsuits in an attempt to overturn the boycott.
In March 1980, she attended a meeting at the White House where she was not given a chance to speak directly to Carter. She had hoped to ask about the possibility of U.S. athletes competing in Moscow under the Olympic flag, as several European nations did.
“We were only there to be lectured to,” she said.
At a State Department briefing, she addressed David Jones, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
“I said, ‘Can you just tell me that one life, just one, will be saved if we don’t compete in Moscow?’ He thought for a moment and he said, ‘No, I cannot.’ And that was it for me.”
DeFrantz’ last chance of making it to the Games was if the International Rowing Federation entered the U.S. rowing team directly. The U.S. rowing federation blocked the move on grounds that there was no official U.S. Olympic team.
DeFrantz said she will never be able to get over her disappointment.
“I just want to make sure it never happens again,” she said.
As it turned out, DeFrantz was the only American awarded a medal in Moscow, in absentia. At the 1980 IOC Session in the Russian capital, she received the Olympic Order (bronze) for her support of the Olympic Movement.
“I didn’t know about it until much later,” she said.
DeFrantz, who became an IOC member in 1986, is set to solidify her place at the top table of the Olympic Movement on Friday. She will elevated to 1st Vice President for the second time after Ugur Erdener and Juan Antonio Samaranch rotate off the Executive Board.
Stephen Wilson is the former long-time Olympic correspondent and European Sports Editor of The Associated Press and former president of the Olympic Journalists Association. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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