FEATURES | summer 2004
Convincing the World
Nothing short of gender equality will satisfy the IOC’s Anita DeFrantz
Alexander Demianchuk /Reuters
If Anita DeFrantz hadn’t become the most powerful woman in amateur sports, she might have settled for being secretary of state. A natural diplomat and the winner of a bronze medal in rowing, the 51-year-old member of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) is an imposing public presence — nearly 6 feet tall — yet wields power with a smile and a soft voice.
“I don’t fight,” she says. “I convince.”
Ms. talked with DeFrantz in her Los Angeles office, where she works as president of the city’s Amateur Athletic Foundation (the IOC position, weighty as it is, is voluntary).
Ms: There are now 12 female members of the IOC, but there were no women members during its first 80-some years. Have women decision-makers made a difference?
DeFrantz: Absolutely. Women’s views made a huge difference on the Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee as well. One of the changes I am very proud of — I proposed it — is that there’s no longer segregated housing for women and men at the Olympics. In Montreal, the men were in one building, the women in another, and we had to meet someplace else if we had a male coach or wanted to get together with male teammates. Besides making it a lot easier to create an Olympic Village, [having it be coed] has meant that women could become chef de missions [head of their Olympic delegations], not just women’s administrators.
You have worked on the international level with the IOC, down to the local level with the AAF. I get so inspired each year when the AAF holds a National Girls & Women in Sports Day event and honors women athletes. This year, you invited a group of young girls who compete as boxers! That was unimaginable 20 years ago.
Well, girls boxing was happening 20 years ago, but it was somewhat secretive. Like women ski jumpers — they were cleverly disguised as men in order to ski jump.
Now that women’s wrestling has made it into the Games, I guess boxing is the only Olympic sport that doesn’t include a women’s event.
Yes — if you accept baseball and softball as equivalent. The IOC has adopted a principle of equality of women and men; it’s been in the IOC Charter since 1994. You can go through history and see women taking part in every sport. The only two Olympic sports that are designed for women, in which men would have a significant disadvantage, are rhythmic gymnastics and synchronized swimming.
There’s obviously been a much greater acceptance of women’s sports in the past couple of decades.
I know a lot about discrimination, being an African American woman, so I have an awful lot of trouble with the word “acceptance.” The difference is the support and the opportunity. Once you see women competing at the highest levels, doing things you can barely imagine doing, you do support it. Interestingly enough, studies now show that while daily media coverage of women in sports is still dismal — 95 to 1 is the ratio of coverage of men to women on televised media, and it’s 20 to 1 in print media — at least in the Olympic Games, where we pursue excellence and mutual respect, the coverage has become far more even, qualitatively and quantitatively.
How do you convince certain Islamic countries to send women athletes to the Games?
Bahrain sent two women to Sydney. I had a chat with the president of the national Olympic committee of the United Arab Emirates, and they hope to have a woman get into the shooting competition in Athens. They’ve applied for what’s called an invitation — the rules are really tough now to be able to compete, because the international sports federations set up standards to manage the numbers. But we can make this happen.
Has there been a religious proscription against women competing from these countries?
There are Muslims competing at the Olympics — there are Muslims on the U.S. team. In the Sydney Games there was a man who didn’t compete in an event because it was held on a Sunday, as happened famously in 1924 [immortalized in the film “Chariots of Fire”]. So you can choose not to compete in an event that wouldn’t work with your personal convictions.
You were the first-ever female vice president of the IOC, and you put yourself up for president in 2001 — what was that experience like?
Ahhh … Daunting, in many respects, because the rules kept changing. But I did it, and I learned a lot. And now, I’ll be the only one experienced, should I ever run again. So far, my question is, Why not? The good news is that no one really said I couldn’t do it, and I was pleased about that.
With all this progress for women in the Olympic movement, do you expect any backlash?
The Olympic movement is based on concepts of mutual respect and the pursuit of excellence — how can you change that? How can you go backwards with those two cornerstones of the Olympic movement? Within the Olympic movement, there’s no turning back.
— Michele Kort
Discuss the Olympics and Women's Sports
Michele Kort is senior editor of Ms. As a Ms. freelancer, she covered the 1984 Summer Olympics.