Touch of gold
Touch of goldPublished March 2, 2015
At a conference table high above Times Square, Donna de Varona is helping to invent the old girl network. Alongside executives of the professional services firm Ernst & Young, she plots the rollout of the Women Athletes Business Network, an online community of female athletes looking to transition to corporate life.
She’s attacking the cause with the same zeal she brought to countless others over the last half-century. “I’ve watched men in the corporate world seek out male athletes,” she explains. “They do it because those athletes know how to work as a team, to get through pain, to set goals, to deal with failure. Well, the same is true for women.”
De Varona at 67 still bears a remarkable likeness to the fresh-faced swimmer who graced the covers of Look, Life and Sports Illustrated as a 17-year-old in 1964, when she was voted the world’s top female athlete. Yet a lifetime of achievement and activism has given her access to decision-makers — political, journalistic and corporate — on a par with most anyone in sports. “Her charm, her elegance, her intelligence — people are going to return that phone call,” said Nancy Lieberman, who from 1998 to 2000 served as president of the Women’s Sports Foundation, which de Varona helped create. “And she’s got a Rolodex filled with people of power who love her.”
So when she tells the EY group that the Tory Burch Foundation, for which she has recently given a speech, is worth contacting because “they have a great Rolodex,” it elicits chuckles around the table.
Isn’t everyone worth contacting already in de Varona’s own Rolodex?
De Varona’s professional life has played out in venues so different as to seem diametric opposites. One was the overtly public forum of national television. To many, she’s renowned as the former Olympian who broke the gender barrier in sports broadcasting in the mid-1960s with regular appearances on ABC’s “Wide
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The other side, all but unseen, was even more impactful. The work she did as a committee member, activist, volunteer and executive changed the lives of athletes across America and beyond. “She does it in the public forum,” said ESPN’s Julie Foudy, who starred on the U.S. team that won the 1999 Women’s World Cup, which de Varona chaired. “But she also does it in a very private way, behind closed doors, which is usually the men’s way. Donna is the blonde who walks into the cigar-smoky room to say, ‘Hey, this isn’t right.’ She has an uncanny ability to connect with people and make them care about an issue that maybe wasn’t at the top of their priority list.”
The issues she has chosen could serve as a mirror of America’s social history since the 1960s. At every turn, it seems, de Varona has been there. She’s Forrest Gump with gumption, Zelig with a mission, unafraid to buttonhole someone in a position of authority and explain what must be done. “She has made — and keeps making — a difference in the world,” said former U.S. Sen. Bill Bradley.
She fought racial injustice by spending summers in urban America, holding clinics for underprivileged youths. (One of them, she later learned, was a young Bob Beamon, the future record-shattering long jumper, who credits her with turning around his life.) She lobbied Capitol Hill to get Title IX funded and implemented. She served as a staffer on the Senate committee that overhauled how Olympic sports are governed in America. She successfully petitioned for athletes to gain a voice on the International Olympic Committee’s governing board. (Among them were Sebastian Coe, who later engineered the London Olympics, and Thomas Bach, who now runs the IOC.)
Yet she seldom gets full credit for her achievements. Even her firsts as a female in sports television are frequently assumed to be Lesley Visser’s, though Visser followed nearly two decades behind. “Am I ever going to be recognized by the male sports establishment for being the first, knocking down doors and creating things, coming up with original ideas?” de Varona asked. “I doubt it. It doesn’t matter. I live a grateful life. But I doubt it.”
Schiller has an explanation. “You have to create some enemies to get where you want,” he explained. “Donna won’t play that game.” For all her interest in and exposure to politics, he added, she’s not a political being. In a sense, it’s her great advantage. “It means she can stay behind the scenes and be effective.”
“She is truly collaborative,” echoed David O’Brien, an EY executive working with her on the Women Athletes Business Network. “You’d expect that from someone who played basketball, but she did it as a swimmer. She really lives by this whole concept of team.”
Before swimming, de Varona loved baseball. She played beside her brother on the fields of Lafayette, Calif. “Then Little League organized girls right out of the game,” she said. So she became the batgirl. And found the pool. “Swimming gave me an identity and a place to belong,” she said. “It was my ticket to a wider world.”
At 13, incredibly enough, she was an Olympian, hanging out with Cassius Clay and Wilma Rudolph in Rome. (“Cassius was actually a little shy,” she recalled. “But he did wear his gold medal around.”) By Tokyo in ’64, she’d become an international sensation. “I met her in the Olympic village and fell in love,” said Bradley, who later invited her to Princeton to spend a weekend. (“She was still in high school, so she refused,” he said. He still sounds disappointed.)
|Donna de Varona parlayed Olympic swimming gold in the 1960s to a career in front of the camera as a sportscaster and a life attacking causes and injustice in sports, politics and business.
After spending time with Rudolph abroad, she was astonished to experience the racial divide at home. “I’m 17, I’m in Little Rock, Ark., and there’s a curfew,” she recalled. “Wilma takes me to a nightclub. The whole place stops because I’m white. But then they see I’m with her, so I’m embraced. I mean, when you live it on that level, how can you not say, ‘America’s got to be better than this.’”
Later, as a UCLA undergraduate, she shared a campus with Angela Davis. “Our chancellor is denouncing her as a radical,” she said. “But she’s telling the truth, and I know it’s the truth. So what do you do?”
What she did was make the first of many solicitations to power, sending a letter to then-Vice President Hubert Humphrey to explain her outrage — and suggest the creation of an athletic Peace Corps. Soon she was representing the U.S. government as an ambassador to urban America in an experimental program called Operation Champ. She spent the summer of 1966 giving clinics and speeches, then did it again in 1968.
Another letter proved of more lasting importance. Without athletic scholarships for women, she had no way to continue swimming after Tokyo. She couldn’t have a job with even a remote connection to her sport, or one that capitalized on her fame, without sacrificing Olympic eligibility. Yet she wasn’t ready to leave it. So she wrote Chuck Howard, who’d created “Wide World of Sports” with Jim McKay, asking for work as a commentator. “Her career was over so early,” Billie Jean King said. “She had to make a way for herself. It wasn’t easy, but she was able to reinvent herself as a broadcaster.” Soon she was a regular on the show.
Of all de Varona has done, nothing became a fixture in American culture so much as a phrase that she off-handedly suggested to ABC’s Roone Arledge before the 1968 Olympics.
Arledge was the first in a long line of programmers to ask a stock question in sports television: “How can we make these athletes interesting?” De Varona’s off-the-cuff response became the answer. “I told him, ‘People don’t know who they are,’” she said. “‘We should do something like — in my California slang — Up Close and Personal.’ He said, ‘Good idea.’ It became our signature.”
|De Varona, shown at below interviewing runner Mary Decker for ABC, was one of the first female sportscasters on network television.
Mason recalls celebrating de Varona’s 21st birthday in Los Angeles with Dick Ebersol by adding soap suds to a hotel fountain until it overflowed. Mason pretended to snatch de Varona’s purse as they entered the lobby and was held under house arrest until she could confirm his story. “We were three young people having the time of our lives at a very high level of growth in the industry,” Mason said.
But while Mason and Ebersol would go on to run entire divisions, de Varona’s contributions were less obvious, though she’d become one of the few on-air personalities working off-camera as an executive. She produced and commissioned features, made hires, participated in Olympic negotiations, helped set policy. “I fought like hell for every assignment,” she said. “I made so much less than the guys. I just felt lucky to be there.” (Along the way, she became the first woman sportscaster in the New York market, producing and narrating features for the ABC affiliate’s “Eyewitness News” telecasts.)
In 1997, she was fired. “ABC had lost the Olympics,” she said. “They were cleaning house. If they’d shown me respect, maybe given me a goodbye on the air, it would have been different. But this was like I was kicked out of my family.” She filed a lawsuit for wrongful termination, an anguished decision that she knew would color the way she was perceived for years to come. After a career of denying the gender difference, she was using it to prove a point. “I felt like I’d taken a shotgun and blown a hole in my stomach,” she said.
Eventually the lawsuit was settled. De Varona returned to ABC in 2002. “She wasn’t fighting for her rights, she was fighting for our rights,” said Lieberman, who does color commentary on Oklahoma City Thunder telecasts. “Donna opened the door for the rest of us.”
Before covering the 1972 Olympics for ABC, de Varona had pushed Arledge to hire more African-Americans as commentators. In Munich, she found another cause. She watched sprinters fail to get to the starting line on time for a heat and get disqualified, saw two U.S. runners act disrespectfully on the medal stand and the USSR emerge with the men’s basketball gold medal after a chaotic final. She came home and started lobbying Congress to change the structure of American amateur sports.
“Our support staff in Munich were volunteers,” she said. “They went over to have fun, they weren’t paying attention. That doesn’t mean they were bad people. The system was out of date.”
De Varona had worked on the Special Olympics with Eunice Shriver. She understood what such organizations entailed: a toll-free number, an annual dinner, travel stipends. King sent the check that established the foundation. “That’s why she calls herself the founder,” de Varona said. “And that’s where she and I have a bit of a thing. Because, I’m sorry. I came up with the idea. I marketed it.”
For her part, King is magnanimous. “Donna is terrific and has done so much for all of us,” she said. “She did a great job as president.”
With King still an active player, de Varona assumed WSF leadership. The initial dinner, which featured iconic male athletes honoring female athletes, netted some $250,000. “I called in all my favors,” de Varona said. “We sold it out.” She served as president from 1979 until 1984, then chairman. “Even when I was president, Donna was very much there,” Lieberman said. “I needed that history, the who-what-why. Every step, Donna had her finger on the pulse of what should come next.”
In 1976, she’d temporarily left ABC to work for the Senate committee creating a structure for Olympic sports. The point person, Alaska’s Ted Stevens, had told her “I can’t get this done without somebody here pushing for it full time.” She went on the payroll but didn’t accept the pay. “I didn’t want the sports community to think I was doing it for money,” she said.
Then came doping. She sat at the starting line in 1988 in Seoul, South Korea, noticed the yellow in Ben Johnson’s eyes and knew trouble was coming. She learned that, four years earlier, positive drug tests were discarded “for the good of the Games.” So de Varona did what she does. She marched up to someone in power and made her case. She paid her way to Washington, found where drug czar McCaffrey was speaking, and said, “General, I have a story for you.”
She told McCaffrey that her brother was pressured unsuccessfully to use steroids while playing football at Oregon. She explained that doping wasn’t limited to rogue Olympic athletes but was inherent in the system. Acting unilaterally would only put America at a competitive disadvantage. A worldwide protocol was needed. Impressed, McCaffrey said, “Join my team.”
De Varona hasn’t slowed. “She’s never let her foot off the gas,” Mason said. “She contributes regardless of whether she comes from an official place or not.” Told that Ernst & Young wanted a place in the Olympic movement, she inquired about joining forces to make a network of female athletes a reality. She found a receptive audience. “Women are not prepared to pivot,” said Beth Brooke-Marciniak, who played basketball for Purdue and now serves as Ernst & Young’s global vice chair for public policy. “They think their only future is as a coach, trainer or broadcaster.”
For Brooke-Marciniak, de Varona is an ideal partner. “Donna is so smart, so engaging,” she said. “You see her political connections, her connections to IOC members. She understands their agendas. She has the ability to make things happen.”
De Varona could live a languid life in Greenwich, Conn., with her husband, John Pinto, and two grown children, but her social conscience won’t let her. She’s on the go, flying to Rio one week, London the next, diving in with her usual commitment and enthusiasm. It’s like she’s still 17, working on behalf of civil rights across urban America. Except that, half a century on, she’s far more than just a magazine cover come to life.
“What I have been struck by is the number of people who approach her and say, ‘I’ve been inspired by you,’” said EY’s O’Brien. “It’s through the generations, from the 26-year-old to someone who could have been on the front lines with her in the 1960s and ’70s. That’s her greatest legacy.”
Bruce Schoenfeld is a writer in Colorado.