Q&A: IOC’s Anita DeFrantz on Peng Shuai, China and the second COVID-19 Olympics

International Olympic Committee member Anita DeFrantz. (Leon Neal/Pool Photo via AP)

Anita DeFrantz has a deep background in sport — and the politics of sport.

The fifth longest-serving International Olympic Committee member (Canadian Dick Pound is at the top of the list), DeFrantz won bronze for the United States in the women’s eight rowing event at the 1976 Olympics in Montreal before her bid to go to the Games a second time in Moscow in 1980 was dashed by a boycott during the Cold War.

DeFrantz took on then-American President Jimmy Carter, leading a lawsuit against that decision, and has been a vocal critic of Olympic boycotts.

While the lawsuit was unsuccessful, DeFrantz did not lose her passion for the Olympics. The University of Pennsylvania law school graduate was a vice-president of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic committee (Russia and others boycotted those Games). Two years later, DeFrantz became the first American woman and first African-American to be named an IOC member.

DeFrantz, who previously served two terms as a vice-president of the IOC, is one of 101 current IOC members.

Considering her background, the Philadelphia native is as qualified as anyone to address the concerns about the Beijing Olympics, with the Opening Ceremony kicking off the Games on Feb. 4.

With COVID-19 surging and China continuing to face criticism for human rights — including on a sport-specific front with concerns about tennis player Peng Shuai’s safety — many have questioned if it’s a good idea to go ahead with these Olympics.

The IOC’s two video calls with the Grand Slam doubles champion late last year were the first reported contacts Peng had with people outside China since Nov. 2 when she sent a social media post alleging she was sexually assaulted by a former top Communist Party official. However, the video calls were not shown to the public.

The IOC awarded Beijing the 2022 Winter Games — the city also hosted the 2008 Summer Games, with Toronto finishing as runner-up — in a close 44-40 vote against Almaty, Kazakhstan in 2015. Oslo (Norway), Stockholm (Sweden), Krakow (Poland) and Lviv (Ukraine) dropped out during the bid process.

DeFrantz addresses COVID, Peng and questions about China in this interview with Sportsnet.

EDITOR’S NOTE: As DeFrantz said in the interview, she does not speak for the IOC. Her comments represent her personal opinions. This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

SPORTSNET: We’re less than a month away from the start of the Olympics. How do you as an IOC member feel about that, considering the state of the world right now?

ANITA DeFRANTZ: We had a similar state of the world close to a year ago for Tokyo (at the Summer Olympics, which were pushed back a year), although we didn’t have Omicron. If you take a look at the Playbook (the IOC’s guide and rulebook for COVID), there’s a Playbook for athletes and a Playbook for everyone else. The strict rules we’ll be under are similar to the ones in Tokyo, although that was called a bubble and this is called a closed-loop.

SN: We’re still in the pandemic and there have been some reports that this variant is less severe in many people. The difference, however, is that a lot more people appear to be testing positive (in this wave) as evidenced by the worldwide surge. Is that a concern for you?

AD: It’s not for me to be concerned. It’s a concern for the athletes who want to compete and making sure they don’t catch (COVID-19) — especially this Omicron. Most — I don’t know what percentage it is now — of the athletes will have been vaccinated and boosted. Omicron, as the scientists say, is less lethal so that’s a good thing.

SN: In general, from your end, do you worry about a level playing field (because of concerns many athletes will be ineligible based on positive tests)? Is this really going to be the best of the best or is there going to be a degree of luck involved?

AD: The athletes know seven years in advance where the Games will be. They know what date, what time — I guess the date changes occasionally. Within four years, they know exactly what the Games will be, what sports, what events, what times. The venues are there. The venues have been tested as they’re supposed to be to make sure they’re safe and the competition will be fair. Then, it’s up to the national Olympic committees to bring their teams and they always bring the very best teams. Every Games, of course, is situated in the time of the Games. People ask about ’80 and ’84. Everyone could go. If they did not, in my opinion, that’s really bad for the athletes and good for nothing. I’m so anti-boycott… it never does any good. It always hurts athletes, period.

SN: Has the IOC at all considered postponement of these Games?

AD: Not to my knowledge.

SN: Do you think it would make sense at all?

AD: No. Again, it hurts the athletes. Everything is ready. We have as many provisions (as the IOC considers possible). We did this with a much larger group of athletes not even a year ago, six months ago.

SN: Obviously, we are still in a pandemic — which we were hoping we wouldn’t be. We don’t know what the future is going to be in a year. Is that one reason why you wouldn’t want to postpone it?

AD: There’s no reason to postpone — there’s the other reason not to postpone. When we went to Tokyo, the Japanese public had been only two per cent inoculated. We did not bring a COVID (surge). … In fact, we left the place better. The IOC and its partners provided 40,000 inoculations for the staff and others working with the athletes. It really helped their inoculation rate go up.

EDITOR’S NOTE: The New York Times reported this week there were more than 400 COVID infections in the Tokyo Olympic bubble.

SN: The other concern obviously has been China. In Canada, like the U.S., there is a diplomatic boycott and there is sensitivity here because of the two Michaels (Spavor and Kovrig) who have just been released from China (after lengthy detainments). What do you say to people who think it’s wrong for the Olympics to be in China?

AD: I have a different opinion. The Games are the Games. We work with the organizing committee. The IOC does not have the power to change national policy. We never have had and I doubt we ever will. We have tightened our commitments from organizing committees to include more than we have before for specifically issues such as human rights. But again, we are specifically a Swiss association, period. That is the legal definition of the IOC, which is headquartered in Switzerland. We have no political, military or other power other than the fact that people love the Olympic Games and want them to endure.

Everyone else wants us to make the world perfect. We’d love to make the world perfect — and we do, inside the Olympic villages during the Games. Sadly, after the Games and Paralympic Games, the world goes back to being what it is. But those who have lived in the Olympic villages have a new understanding of how the world can work together. That is a huge benefit to the world. And indeed the world can see it. And the fair-play things that happen during the Games are legendary. Without the Games, we wouldn’t have that. You need it for the world. That’s why.

SN: The (WTA Tour) has taken events out of China in relation to the Peng Shuai situation whereas the IOC has decided they’re going on with the Olympics. There is a bit of contrast there.

AD: The (WTA Tour) is not the IOC. They are a one-sport federation. They get to do (what) they want. International sport federations are independent. They come into agreement with the IOC when their sport is on the program of the Games. Outside of the Games, they’re independent.

SN: As far as the Peng Shuai situation, though, no video was released of (the video calls) and the WTA continues to say they’re concerned for her safety. Do you understand that criticism and do you feel good about her situation?

AD: Not for me to feel good or bad… I can tell you one thing — and I don’t want to hurt her in any way — but the athletes’ network is vast and strong. If something were happening to harm her, we would know.

SN: You saw what you saw and you’re comfortable?

AD: I saw what I saw and she appears to be alive and well.

SN: Are you going to Beijing?

AD: I certainly intend to be there.

SN: How would you describe your feelings? Are you excited, nervous? How do you feel at this stage?

AD: Well, excited and nervous — I am an Olympian so I know a little bit about how athletes feel leading up to the Games. So I have that feeling as well, although not nearly as pronounced as they would have. The (same feelings) with every Games I’ve attended. We’ve had some interesting challenges along the way.


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