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Is She the Most Powerful Woman in Sports?

Anita Defrantz won a medal in '76, took on Jimmy Carter's boycott in '80, stood at the right hand of Peter Ueberroth in '84 and helped win the games for Atlanta in '96. Now she could become the first woman to head the International Olympics Committee.

June 30, 1996|Randy Harvey | Randy Harvey covers the Olympics for The Times

The most powerful woman in sports is on edge, has been all evening. She arrived at the entrance of Atlanta's Centennial Olympic Stadium in a luxury car provided for her as a member of the International Olympic Committee--a perk she still does not seem to be comfortable with after a decade--and had started to make a quick exit. "Will you get in trouble if I jump out now?" she asked the young man assigned to chauffeur her. "Maybe. You'd better wait for the official door opener," he said. She sighed. And waited.

Now Anita DeFrantz sits alone inside the 85,000-seat stadium. She peeks often at her watch, as if to will an early sundown so that the night's program can begin. The $232-million stadium, which will host the opening and closing ceremonies during the July 19-Aug. 4 Summer Olympics, is scheduled to open officially the next day with a track meet. DeFrantz has been invited to this sneak preview, which also serves to test the stadium lights.

A few yards behind her, at a cocktail party in the stadium's VIP lounge, are about 200 guests, including IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch of Spain and International Amateur Athletic Federation President Primo Nebiolo of Italy. Occasionally, some of them step outside to chat with DeFrantz, who is drinking bottled water. She is cordial but seems distracted.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday July 21, 1996 Home Edition Los Angeles Times Magazine Page 6 Times Magazine Desk 1 inches; 18 words Type of Material: Correction
In the June 30 issue, the Page 10 photograph of Anita DeFrantz should have been credited to Times photographer Robert Gauthier.

Could it be that she has too many weighty issues on her mind? As a member of the IOC's inner circle--its 11-member executive board--as well as the U.S. Olympic Committee's 22-member executive committee, she is the most influential American in the Olympic movement since Avery Brundage, the controversial former IOC president.

Brundage, whose sole purpose was to prevent the Modern Games from becoming too modern, would not have made room in his IOC for DeFrantz. Befitting her experiences in the 1976 Summer Olympics as a bronze medalist in rowing--"the noblest sport," she calls it--DeFrantz is most often linked with two causes: athletes' rights, including those of professionals to participate in the Olympics, and increased opportunities in sports for women. It is debatable whether women's soccer or softball would be in the 1996 Summer Olympics without a push from DeFrantz.

Harvey Schiller, former USOC executive director, declares that DeFrantz is "the voice of the Olympic movement in the United

States." Anyone who heard that voice trembling with anger on that September 1988 night in Seoul, when Canadian sprinter Ben

Johnson was stripped of his gold medal after testing positive for an anabolic steroid, could not help but be moved. She called Johnson a "cheat" and a "coward." Since then, she has been a leading proponent of the IOC's war on banned substances. Concerned that their Olympics would become known as the "Drug Games," officials from the organizing committee for the Atlanta Games were not in favor of using the most technologically advanced testing devices this summer. DeFrantz insisted, and won.

She has backed down from fights with no one--not Schiller, not Samaranch, not Jimmy Carter. Especially not Carter. Sixteen years after the former president ordered the U.S. boycott of the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow, costing her a chance at a second medal and countless heartaches as she unsuccessfully sued the USOC to reject his mandate, she went to war when Carter was nominated to participate in this year's torch relay. He gracefully bowed out, citing a prior commitment. Still, DeFrantz has been so effective and so diplomatic overall that, at age 43 and only 10 years after she became an IOC member, she is being discussed as a possible successor to Samaranch.

"I feel Anita is the most respected member of the IOC," says Jim Easton of Los Angeles, the other U.S. member of the committee. "She comes up with answers that are rational, and everyone knows that there is not an agenda or any baggage behind them. She makes her decisions based on what she clearly believes is best for the Olympic Games."

In that role, DeFrantz estimates that she travels about 250,000 miles a year. Considering her frenetic schedule for the last week, that would be reason alone for her to be on edge tonight. Six nights before, she was at USOC headquarters in Colorado Springs for a planning session. From there she flew to a meeting at IOC headquarters in Lausanne, Switzerland. Then it was home to Los Angeles, where as president of the Amateur Athletic Foundation she accepted a $45,000 donation from Mercedes-Benz. A red-eye to Atlanta followed.

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