K is for Johann Olav Koss: The Right To Play Movement

The video above is an abridged version of Frank Marshall’s documentary for ESPN Films about Right To Play, a movement founded by Johan Olav Koss.

Johann was a speed skater who won three Gold Medals at the 1994 Winter Olympic Games. This opened the gate to many possibilities for his future career.

But Johann had already committed himself to another path. A few months earlier he had visited Eritrea.

This led to him creating the Right To Play. Here is the organisation’s Mission.

Right To Play’s mission is to use sport and play to educate and empower children and youth to overcome the effects of poverty, conflict and disease in disadvantaged communities.

Here is a description of what happened on Johann’s trip to Eritrea.

As children played amidst burned out tanks, under the watchful eyes of war martyrs in surrounding posters and murals, it was one boy who crystallized the epiphany for Johann that would write the future of Right To Play.

“I met a group of boys, about 12-years-old, and one of them was very popular,” says Johann.

“I asked ‘Why are you so popular?’ and he said: ‘Can’t you see? I have long sleeves’.”

The boy then took off his shirt, rolled it up, and using the sleeves to tie a knot, turned the shirt into a ball that they used to play in the streets.

The game ended when it was time for the boy with the long sleeves to go home.

Traumatized, these children had lost family and friends to the violence, and yet, surrounded by a legacy of war, they only wanted one thing – the opportunity to play. 

Johann promised the boys he would return after the Olympics with a proper ball for them to play with, and in that experience the idea that would become Right To Play was born.

The following February, Johann took to the Olympic ice in Lillehammer, and made history by skating to three world records and three Olympic gold medals in the men’s 1,500m, 5,000m and 10,000m speed skating events.

Remembering his promise to the boys in Eritrea, the now national sports hero pledged his entire gold medal bonus – $30,000 – to Olympic Aid.

In an emotional press conference, he asked his fellow Norwegians to do the same – donate for every medal won by a Norwegian athlete at the games.

A few days later, the 4.8 million citizens of Norway had given more than $18 million.

Right To Play

Johann returned to Eritrea. Labelled a fool by Norwegian media, he took an airplane full of donated sports equipment to a country in dire need of food and basic necessities.

“I met the President of Eritrea and said to him ‘You need food and I have brought sports equipment. I made a mistake. I’m sorry.’

“He looked at me and said:

‘This is the greatest gift we have ever received. For the first time, we are being treated like human beings – not just something to be kept alive. For the first time, my children can play like any child.’

Here is another short film about a Global Youth Summit that focused on the Right To Play.

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