On skates he won four Olympic gold medals and broke 11 world records. Now, using sports and games, he’s dedicating himself to helping ensure children in poor areas have safe and healthy futures. Ode speaks with Johann Olav Koss.
In the run-up to the 1994 Lillehammer Winter Olympics, Norwegian skater Johann Olav Koss found himself walking through the dusty streets of villages in Eritrea. As an ambassador for Olympic Aid, set up by the International Olympic Committee in Lillehammer, he had temporarily interrupted his training routine to draw attention to the condition of people in war-torn areas.
In one village Koss saw how young people stood gaping at posters depicting images of martyrs killed during the war that succeeded in separating their country from Ethiopia. Those martyrs were their heroes. “Every child needs heroes,” Koss would later say, “but the men they had chosen as role models were soldiers. What kind of heroes would you want a child to have?”
And then something happened that Koss will always remember. Suddenly, a group of cyclists passed on the street. The young people turned, started to yell, scream, and shout with joy and excitement. Then they started running, as fast as they could, after the bikers. It was clear that sportspeople held a special attraction for these kids. Back in Norway, Koss fell back into his daily routine of endless training sessions at the skating rink. A few months later, the world would watch Johann Olav Koss win three gold medals in Lillehammer by setting a world record for all three events. The 25-year-old athlete from Drammen, near Oslo, had a brilliant sports career in front of him. But he saw it differently. He believed he had won everything he could win. So after collecting his Olympic medals, he retired.
“As a professional skater you ride around and around the track. You ask yourself what you’re doing it all for.” Johann Olav Koss—37, wearing a dark-blue suit—looks as if he still knows the answer all these years later. Like most athletes, Koss speaks of “you” when he means himself. “You’re very focused on yourself, you’re very narrow-minded and your world is limited. At a certain point you want to see the greater meaning—the greater whole.”
He found that meaning when he travelled through Africa and saw how he could help. Once again, after the Olympics, he found himself at the Eritrea airport. This time, he had brought presents: soccer balls. Thousands of soccer balls. An airplane full of them. They had been collected by children in Norway for their peers in Eritrea. He arrived there a week after the country’s president had made an international appeal for food aid for his country, ravaged by hunger after a protracted war. Didn’t he think himself incredibly naïve?
“Yes,” he says disarmingly. “I had just come from the Olympic Games. I was new to the world of development aid. I didn’t know anything about it.”
But his hesitation disappeared immediately when he met President Isaias Afewerki. Koss asked him what he thought about all the sports equipment he had brought. “He looked at me and, with a sincere tone, said: ‘This is the most beautiful gift we have ever received. Finally we are being seen as human beings. We are more than mouths to feed, more than people dying who must be kept alive. We are people. We, too, have dreams and we hope for a better future.’”
Those words would change his career. Today, as Koss pulls his chair up at a café in The Hague, for our discussion—just before the Winter Olympics in Turin, during a visit to the Netherlands office—he is the honorary chairman of Right To Play, which offers sports and games as a means of development in disaster areas and refugee camps in Africa, Asia and the Middle East. From his home in Toronto, Canada, he directs seven regional offices in Europe and the United States with 64 paid staff and 90 volunteers who reach 500,000 children in 20 countries every week.
Right To Play is the new name for Olympic Aid, which he took over and gave a portion of his prize money to in 1994 while calling on other athletes to do the same. A sizable $18 million U.S. (15 million euros) was collected during the Olympic Games in Lillehammer. That money was used to finance various projects, including several schools in Eritrea, a hospital in Sarajevo and a program for disabled people in Lebanon.
Koss expanded the organization’s scope: It was no longer just about the relationship between sports and development, but also sports and health. Right To Play’s projects offer a message beyond the games; they teach young people about healthy food, vaccines and hygiene, about the dangers of tobacco and alcohol, about how they can protect themselves against HIV (see box, “Making AIDS education fun”). It’s no coincidence that Koss finished medical school last year—after many years of study interrupted by skating and development work.
“Naturally it is not enough just to introduce sports and games in poor areas,” Koss explains. “You need the right combination of trade and aid. For trade, the rules have to be fairer; for aid, the budget higher. Those necessary steps often don’t match politicians’ short-term vision. But in the meantime you can make a crucial contribution: Sports are a way of giving people back a sense of dignity.”
“We can develop ourselves through sports,” Koss continues, “both physically and mentally. We learn to develop self-confidence. Sports teach us that there are rules, that we have to work hard and do our best. We learn how to co-operate and communicate; how to solve conflicts in a sportsmanlike manner. I think those are essential conditions for constructing a democracy.”
You get sworn enemies to move closer together when you give them a goal to share, Koss believes. Right To Play gets children from different ethnic or religious backgrounds to play together on the same team. Hutus and Tutsis together in Rwanda; Israelis and Palestinians. As teammates, they can forget their differences.
Moreover, sports are a high point in the miserable conditions of the refugee camps. Men and boys get bored, have no goals or prospects for improving their situations. “So what happens?” Koss asks. “They pick fights, they harass women, they no longer take care of themselves. But when you introduce sports and games, something happens that you could call magic. They spontaneously rediscover a reason to live.”
Those effects are lasting, according to Koss. “Years later, when we visit areas where we introduced Right To Play, we see that children are healthier; they go to school more often and there are fewer conflicts.”
This is why Johann Olav Koss should get the Nobel Peace Prize, says Adolf Ogi, former president of Switzerland and currently under secretary-general of the United Nations and special advisor to Kofi Annan in the area of sports and development. Obviously Ogi sees sports as a great healing force in the world. “Sports are a necessity for the development of every child,” he writes in the book Right to Play, published last year in the Netherlands.
“Should a politician be sent off to visit a disaster area, there are few who would have any idea as to who or what he is. On the other hand, should the likes of [French football player] Zinedine Zidane or David Beckham turn up, then there is immediate and all round recognition. It is of real help to people in disaster areas when sporting champions come to visit them. Playing together, all problems can be forgotten in an instant, whilst hopes of a better future begin to be felt. Yet what is most important is their being offered a belief that they are not forgotten by the outside world and are, thus, no longer on their own.”
Dennis Bright, Sierra Leone’s minister of youth and sports, made a similar statement last May to the United Nations General Assembly in New York: “Sport helps! Look around you! Then you will see the magical effect that sport and play has on young people—they love learning whatever is on offer during their play. It is high time that governments all around the world understand that their people will simply find improvement through its influence!”
That’s exactly what Johann Olav Koss is focused on right now: spreading the positive message of sports and games. There aren’t many people who are as suited as he for the job. Koss is an ideal lobbyist: a world-famous figure with a charming manner and a sports story that appeals to the imagination.
Koss is able to meet with officials at the highest level. If he’s not happy with some aspect of the collaboration with the United Nations, Koss knows just who to call: Kofi Annan’s number is programmed into his cell phone.
Johann Olav Koss has succeeded where the most seasoned development experts have failed: getting the topic of sports and development to climb higher on the political and public agenda. The right to play, which the United Nations established in Article 31 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, is more in focus than ever before.
“The only thing I want,” says Koss, “is to give people hope. I want them to laugh, and dream.”