Anita DeFrantz, who trained in Philadelphia for the first Olympic games that allowed women rowers, was in town last weekend nearly 45 years after that milestone in sport.
Besides rowing in the eight-oared boat in Montreal in 1976– and winning a bronze medal — Anita also made history in 1986 when she was the first American woman and first African American to serve on the International Olympic Committee. Now she is recognized with an exhibit about her at the new National Museum of African American History in Washington, D.C. And she just published a book, My Olympic Life.
Yet, you would never know all that in meeting this modest, gracious woman. Speaking on a panel at the Vesper Boat Club that included the pioneering women of the 1976 games, Anita gave credit to others for opening the way.
Among those “you’ve probably never heard of,” she said, are Nelly Gambon-de-Vos, a Dutch rower of the 1940s who by the 1960s was on a Women’s Rowing Commission that was pushing the International Rowing Federation (FISA) to get women rowers into the Olympics. “She, more than anyone else, was responsible for bugging Thomi Keller [president of FISA] and insisting that women be put on the program,” Anita said. The other was Monique Berlioux, a champion swimmer who as director of the International Olympic Committee made sure that the introduction of women’s rowing into the Olympics would not be a second-class showing.
Anita explained: “When it came time for the IOC to vote on whether women should row or not, the answer was ‘yes.’ Then afterwards, the head of the IOC asked Monique, “So which boats? All six? [ single, double, and quadruple sculls; pairs, four and eight] I thought we were talking about three,” he said.
“No, all six,” Monique insisted.
“She made it possible to come in with a full slate of boats…. to be on the program of the games in 1976. So Michelle Berlioux is very much responsible for where we are today. Not me, Monique and Nellie. They were the ones internationally that made this happen.”
It was special for me to meet Anita in person, since I had interviewed her for my book. She had told me about the rough conditions women faced in the 1970s on Boathouse Row. Unlike the men in training, who had a place to live — the boathouse — “women had to pay rent,” Anita said. And while the men got jobs that gave them time off to train, “we had no support at all. We had to work to support ourselves. We had to pay our own way, to Europe for the world championships at Nottingham in 1975; the 1976 Olympic games in Amsterdam; the ’78 games in New Zealand, the ’79 games in Slovenia.”
As a young lawyer hoping to race in the 1980 games, she filed a lawsuit against the US Olympic Committee for failing to stand up for athletes after President Jimmy Carter cancelled America’s participation in the Moscow games.
Anita also opened doors as an African American, through her leadership of the LA84 Foundation, started with surplus funds from the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. By 2017, LA84 had assets of over $167 million . It supports public school youth sports organizations, helping more than 3 million youths since its start. Last spring alone, it gave $2 million in grants to programs in Southern California.
“In the early days, ” said Anita, “I did not see anybody who was African American which was odd because the boat doesn’t care.”