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.

Kevin Frayer/AP
Canada's speedskater Clara Hughes trains for the upcoming 5,000 meter race at the Richmond Olympic Oval at the Vancouver Olympics, Monday. The race will be held Wednesday.

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.

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.”

Now serving 1 million children

What began as a Norwegian fundraising organization called Olympic Aid in the run-up to the 1994 Games morphed into RTP under Koss’s leadership. Today, it partners with local community-based organizations and some 15,000 volunteers around the world to organize regular sports activities for 1 million children. It also aims to use the mentoring relationships forged through sports to teach children about social issues, including HIV/AIDS prevention and gender equality.

On the dusty playground of the Mary Learning Centre in Kampala’s Rubaga district, about 60 primary schoolchildren from some of the city’s poorest families spend their break times noisily playing Right To Play’s specially designed games.

“You can get HIV if you play with an infected child; fact or fiction?” group leader Florence Anado, who is 13, reads from a carefully written prompt card. “Fiction,” shouts back one of the competitors, winning two points for his team.

The RTP initiative in Uganda is the largest worldwide, with 6,000 trained volunteer coaches running activities designed to teach children about subjects from condom use to the need for clean water. In the six years that the NGO has been working at the Mary Learning Centre, the impact has been dramatic, say teachers and coaches.

For the children, participation in the activities has helped boost discipline, attentiveness and – for the girls especially – confidence, says Marion Ayebale, a young Right To Play coach at the center.

“The activities have really encouraged and motivated our children with new experiences and skills and the knowledge they develop,” Ayebale says. “We have seen a big change in the kids.”

How one refugee's life improved

RTP certainly effected a big change for Benjamin Nzobonankira, who was 10 when Burundi’s civil war broke out. As a 10-year-old, he saw family, friends, and schoolmates massacred, and was then forced to flee his country to the Democratic Republic of Congo – until civil war broke out there, too. Bounced from refugee camp to refugee camp, at one point subsisting for four months only on what he could find in the forest, he finally arrived at a camp in Tanzania – where he was introduced to RTP.

“We had no ambition for playing,” but were attracted to RTP when it was introduced in the camp, says Nzobonankira, now an RTP representative dressed smartly in a dark suit and handsome smile. “When I played sports, things felt normal again. My friends and I were able to laugh and have fun.”

And that, stressed the other conference participants, is just as important as winning Olympic medals.

“We shouldn’t look only to the heroes and the gold medalists. This is something wrong in sports,” said Wilfried Lemke, the special adviser to the United Nations’ secretary-general on sport for development and peace. “Everybody that participates is a hero, and that’s a big, big message from the United Nations to you.”

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