Vancouver 2010: Olympic athletes give poor children the 'Right to Play'
Led by Norwegian Olympic speed skating great Johann Olav Koss, Right to Play is at Vancouver 2010 recruiting athletes and educating the public about its international effort to give children in developing countries greater access to sports.
When speed skater Clara Hughes slides onto the smooth ice tonight for the 5,000-meter race at the Vancouver Olympics, the Canadian sports icon couldn’t be farther from the ramshackle Rubaga district of Uganda’s capital city, Kampala.Skip to next paragraph
But there is a strong bond between her and almost 100,000 kids there: an organization called Right to Play, which she and more than 350 "athlete ambassadors" from 40 countries support. When she won gold in the 5,000-meter race in 2006, she donated $10,000 of her own money to the organization.
Led by Norwegian speed skating great Johann Olav Koss, Right to Play (RTP) is an international initiative to give children in developing countries the opportunity to play and to discover their potential through sport. While it faced strong criticism at the outset for not focusing more on alleviating poverty– and still does, in some quarters – it has expanded its reach to nearly two dozen countries across Africa, Asia, the Middle East, and South America.
In a bid to raise awareness and needed funds, Dr. Koss and RTP are here in Vancouver recruiting athletes and educating the public through a series of events on "Sport, Development, and Peace."
“[People in] slums don’t relate to speed skating or skiing … but they do relate to sport, to heroes, to Olympism,” says Dr. Koss, who had to explain speed skating to Eritrean children as a shoe with a knife under it that goes on frozen water. “[RTP] is about focusing on the best values of sport – teamwork, respect, inclusion, and joyful participation.”
Tough reception at first
But Koss, who recently headlined a conference on sport’s potential to effect societal change at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, wasn’t so sure at the outset. Just after winning three gold medals in at the 1994 Lillehammer Olympics, he was sitting on a runway in Norway with 13 tons of sporting equipment donated – at his behest – by his countrymen. He was headed for Eritrea, where six months earlier he’d learned why a boy with a long-sleeved shirt was so popular: He and his friends could knot the sleeves together and turn it into a ball to kick around the dusty streets.
Now he was bringing them real sports equipment. But not everyone approved.
“The front-cover headline on [a Norwegian newspaper] that morning was, ‘Johann taking sport equipment to hungry children – what an idiot,' ” recalls Koss, who, upon his arrival in Eritrea, was ushered into the president’s palace, where he expressed regret for bringing soccer balls instead of food.
But the president had a different take than the Norwegian paper back home.
“Johann, you have to realize one thing,” Koss recalls him saying. “This is the greatest gift we ever have received. This is the first time we have felt like human beings.”