On October 18, 1977, I was one of four athletes who, with quaking knees, made their way to the witness table in Room 5110 of the Dirksen Senate Office Building. There, skater/cyclist Sheila Young, water polo player Carl Thomas, rower Anita DeFrantz and marathoner Moore gazed up at hot lights and an elevated panel of senators and staff. We had been summoned to testify to the need for what eventually became the Amateur Sports Act of 1978, which restructured Olympic sports governance in the U.S.
We had drawn straws to decide our order of appearance; I had to go first. Runners, I said, had been made pawns in a turf war between the NCAA and the AAU. Athletic directors, I said, should be consultants, not dictators. Furthermore, athletes' freedom to compete where physically qualified should be recognized in federal law.
I didn't think I'd done too badly. Then Senator John C. Culver of Iowa, a boulder of a man, hunched forward and began to mash my case.
"You are saying they [coaches and athletes] ought to talk it over, but the athlete ought to be the one to ultimately decide. Be free to go. No coach, college or parent should stand in the way," he rumbled. "What if one parent wants him to go and the other parent doesn't want him to go and the young athlete wants to go? How would you resolve it legally?
I didn't know. I hadn't even thought of the age problem. Panic rose. I opened my mouth without a clue as to what would come out.
Then, from my near left, rose a steady contralto. "I'm an attorney and I represent children exclusively, so I would say that the child has the right to make that decision," the voice said. "But beyond that, I think that we often forget that sports is an activity which involves decision making. It was DeFrantz, rescuing me, returning the debate to the question of whether responsible athletes might be free to compete where they chose.
The NCAA would eventually lobby to remove separate guarantees of athletes' rights from this bill—it would be left to the U.S. Olympic Committee to safeguard them. But as we rose from the table and I felt myself nearly blushing in gratitude, De-Frantz began to lament the difficulty of getting people to do what they know is right. It was clear that Olympic athletes had found a forceful new advocate. In October 1986, nine eventful years later, 34-year-old Anita DeFrantz was named a member of the International Olympic Committee. Because she has been appointed to the position for life (actually, as a voting member until age 75, after which the position becomes honorary), DeFrantz is looking at more than 40 years in sport's most powerful institution, during which she can give voice to a single theme, to the idea of athletes' rights.
In 1976, DeFrantz was a fresh face on the U.S. Olympic Committee's Athletes Advisory Council. She was a member of the bronze medal-winning women's eight in Montreal that year. It soon became apparent that hers was the art of the penetrating question, and in this she was right for the times. The President's Commission on Olympic Sports was studying the failings of the U.S. system, and restructuring was inevitable. The AAC, which had been formed only three years earlier, was the only body representing athletes from all the Olympic sports, so it was pitched into every argument.
"You came in knowing a sport," recalls DeFrantz, "and you ended up knowing sport. There were feuds and mismanagement everywhere. It was a crash course."
She had grown up in Indianapolis, where her father, the late Robert DeFrantz, had run an organization called Community Action Against Poverty. Her mother, also Anita, was a teacher and is now a professor of education at the University of San Francisco. So the tendency toward community service was in her genes.