Olympic official Anita DeFrantz undisturbed by Seoul's host role. South Korea has shown it can do big things
The Seoul Olympics, scheduled to begin Sept. 17, can't seem to escape from under the cloud of political unrest that has been a major part of South Korea for decades. Even now, 35 years after a cease-fire was declared between North and South Korea, troops from both sides patrol that country's 150-mile demilitarized zone in large numbers. Violent demonstrations (officially student demonstrations) flare up regularly against the South Korean government.
Is this any place for the International Olympic Committee to hold its quadrennial Games?
One official who wouldn't move them is Anita DeFrantz, one of two IOC representatives from the United States as well as a member of the US Olympic Committee's executive board. DeFrantz, who won a bronze medal in women's rowing in 1976, is the first American woman to serve on the 91-member body that governs the Olympics worldwide movement.
``Sports is about risk taking,'' she told me during a recent interview session. ``People who compete in sports know this. A person can train for years in the hope of winning an Olympic medal and not make it. They can lose because of an injury or because they had a subpar day or because one of their rivals exceeded his or her best times ever.
``But those with talent and a dream are going to take that chance anyway, regardless of the physical risks or the financial costs.''
``Putting the Olympics in South Korea is a risk, because this is a country that still has security and internal problems. But those problems are being taken care of. Remember that South Korea is also a country that has returned to prominence 30 years after it was devastated by war and poverty. It has shown that it can do big things.''
Unable to go into specifics about what unusual security methods South Korea has in mind to protect its Olympic visitors, DeFrantz nevertheless is convinced that the Games organizers know what they are doing.
The complicated subject of money for athletes (whether in the form of expenses, subsidies, endorsements, or whatever) is another perennial Olympic controversy.
Asked why some members of the US Olympic squad receive money and others don't, Anita could only explain that the financial awards are made by a screening committee.
``I'm in favor of paying our athletes who need it, because training, traveling, and medical costs can be a terrific burden on an individual,'' said DeFrantz, who in addition to her Olympic duties is a lawyer and serves as president of the Amateur Athletic Foundation of Los Angeles.
``This is serious business, and time away from their families, their education, and their jobs, is a sacrifice not everyone is prepared to make,'' she continued. ``But it would be nice if every athlete could be compensated and not just a select few.''
Like thousands of people involved in the Olympic movement before her, DeFrantz, who is seldom separated from her smile, thinks that the Games transcend politics to bring people and nations closer together, create good will, and build lasting friendships.
One of her favorite stories concerns the 1936 Berlin Olympics and competition in the long jump between American hero Jesse Owens and Luz Long, one of Hitler's so-called supermen.
Long broke the Olympic record in his first try in the preliminaries, but Owens, who was the world record holder in the event, was in danger of not making the finals. He had fouled on his first try and had not jumped far enough to qualify on his second.
Suddenly, Long was telling Owens that the same thing had happened to him the previous year in a track meet in Cologne.
From the wellspring of goodness that lives deep inside all of us, Long told Jesse to remeasure his steps and to place his towel six inches in front of the takeoff board and make his jump from there. That day Owens set an Olympic record that lasted for a quarter of a century.
There is a tag line to this uplifting story that maybe not even DeFrantz knows about.
Shortly before being killed in World War II, Long wrote a letter to Owens. In the event anything should happen to him, he asked Jesse to find his son Karl after the war and tell him ``of how we fought well together; and the good times; and that any two men can become brothers.''
Thus, two men, in the twinkling of an Olympics, had forged an unbreakable bond of love and friendship.