First Female VP of the International Olympic Committee on Breaking the Glass Ceiling

Anita DeFrantz is a name for the history books and one that will always be associated with the Olympics. Besides winning silver and bronze medals in rowing, DeFrantz served as chief administrator of the Olympic Village, was the first African-American elected to the International Olympic Committee (in 1986) and became the organization’s first female vice president, a position she held from 1997 to 2001. Today, DeFrantz is president of the LA84 Foundation and is still a member of the IOC. In the edited version of our interview with her below, she shares what keeps her motivated

by Ilyssa Panitz • Celebrity Reporter
anita defrantz image
Photograph: LA84 Foundation

More: You give new meaning to the term shattering the glass ceiling.
Anita DeFrantz: [Laughs] Thank you, but at the end of the day, I believe everyone should have access to sports.

More: What goes through your mind when people refer to you as the most powerful woman in the Olympic-sports movement?
ADF: I think, Hmm, when was the last time I pumped iron? I guess what goes through my mind is thinking, Everything else is meaningless unless I can do something to help other folks. I really want to make a difference, to help other athletes.

More: What is your definition of making a difference?
ADF: I will always work hard to make sure people have a fair chance and will continue to work toward the goal of trying to make things better.

More: With barriers you broke, you became the first African-American and the first American woman to serve on the committee, and you became the first female vice president of the IOC executive committee.
ADF: Being first is not as important as making sure you are not the last. Two other women have followed me, and I hope more women will continue to work in these positions. 

More: Was it an easy climb to the top?
ADF: I don’t know. I just did it. I really didn’t think about if it was easy or not. If anything, I learned that if there is something important you want to achieve, just do your best and make it happen.

More: Did you do your best?
ADF: Doing my best gave me the chance to say that we have women Olympians everywhere, and future contenders now have role models they can look up to. I feel proud knowing every sport in the Olympics has women present. That is important for children to see, because it is all about equality and making sure everyone has a place.

More: Who was your role model?
ADF: Certainly my mother, the first Anita DeFrantz. My great-grandmother is also a great role model. Although she was small in size, she was very powerful in strength. She had the power to take care of my mom while being able to encourage me to believe I can do whatever I want to do in this world. Although she was denied an education past the fifth grade, she taught me the most valuable lesson: to believe I can go as far as I want to.

More: You are inspired by strength.
ADF: I am inspired by courage. My historical role model was Harriet Tubman, who insisted on her own freedom and then had the courage to go back a number of times to free hundreds of other people.

More: What was the most difficult obstacle you have had to overcome to get to your level?
ADF: I don’t know how to answer that question, because every day is another obstacle. I will say this: If you manage to get past them, then they weren’t so difficult.

More: No disappointments along the way?
ADF: Not getting to the Moscow Games was one of them. I had to fight for that and ultimately sue the United States Olympic Committee for our right to decide who can compete or not. [The U.S. boycotted the Moscow Games in 1980 and didn’t permit athletes to participate on their own.] I still believe it is the athletes’ right to make that decision and not anyone else's. That was a terrible thing that happened.

More: Aside from that, have you achieved everything you set out to do?
ADF: I know I haven’t. In addition to not competing in Moscow, I did not win the election to be president of the IOC. But I don’t look at any of this as a negative. I look at the positive, which was being able to help people, and even today that is what I concentrate on. My daily job now is to encourage young people to take up sports.

More: You have helped a lot of young talent achieve their dreams through a very special foundation.
ADF: Yes, the LA84 Foundation. Aside from the incredible research we have been able to do, we have put over $200 million back in the community in sports through grants and through teaching over 70,000 people how to coach, which is also so very important.

More: How has age worked in your favor in terms of what you are doing right now to change lives?
ADF: I have been over 35 for some time now, and I honestly feel I have not aged a day past 17 [laughs]. Seriously, I am more mature, I know more and I have seen more. I appreciate what I have learned along the way and the experiences I have gone through. Now it is all about taking the next step.

More: You are a former Olympic athlete and medal winner. What qualities from your training and competing have carried over to your later life?
ADF: Having the understanding of why it is important to be part of a team, and knowing that with determination, nothing can stop you from achieving your dreams.

More: What accomplishment are you most proud of?
ADF: Being able to help people makes me happy.

More: If Hollywood wanted to make a movie about your life, name the actress you would love to see fill your shoes.
ADF: I will tell you something: I often get mistaken for Queen Latifah.

More: She is an accomplished actress and recording artist. Nice compliment.
ADF: What about me? I haven’t tried my chops at acting. Maybe I can play myself? [Laughs.]

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First Published Tue, 2012-08-07 07:00

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