New film highlights Koss, Right to Play

Speedskater Joey Cheek drew more attention to Right to Play in 2006, donating his $25,000 prize money to Johann Olav Koss' charity. AP Photo/Jasper Juinen

Norwegian speedskater Johann Olav Koss was preparing for the 1,500-meter race at the 1994 Olympics when a reporter rushed over to him. Koss didn't like talking to reporters before races, but the reporter said he had no questions; he just wanted to deliver a letter.

The letter was from a young speedskater in Sarajevo, site of the 1984 Winter Olympics, which was two years into a long and bloody siege during the 1994 Games. A mortar attack on the market square had killed 68 men, women and children just days before the Games opened in Lillehammer.

"Can you help me?" the skater wrote to Koss. "I'm sitting in a bunker. I can't train. I can't play. I can't be active. I would just love to have the opportunity to skate again."

After reading the letter, Koss stepped onto the oval and skated to the gold medal in a world-record time, his second of three that Olympics. He then announced at the following tearful press conference that he was donating his $30,000 bonus money for the gold medal to Olympic Aid, a charity providing aid to war-torn countries. Within a decade, Koss had grown Olympic Aid into Right to Play, an international humanitarian agency Koss heads that uses games and sports as a tool to teach, inspire and empower children in war-ravaged and distressed countries.

Koss had already planned to donate the bonus money before reading the letter at the 1994 Olympics, but it remains a motivation for him.

"It was such a powerful message to receive just when I was in a personal moment where I wanted to do something more and find a purpose," Koss said. "As an athlete, you don't think about the incredible power you have as a role model. And speedskating is not a big sport, but the Olympics are big and children even in the worst scenarios of the world are looking up to the athletes. You can have such an impact for inspiration and hope if you connect your one role to support kids in these places.

"That's why we have built a large number of athlete ambassadors connected to the organization -- to inspire and celebrate what the children are doing. That they have a right to play, that they have a right to participate. They have the right to believe in themselves and become great citizens."

You can learn more about Koss and his work in a new ESPN film airing Saturday afternoon on ABC (check local listings). Directed by Frank Marshall, "Right to Play'' chronicles Koss' growth from a skater to his world-wide humanitarian efforts. Koss' goal is simple: Provide opportunities for children to play everywhere, because it is through games that we learn; and it is through these games and lessons that countries will develop the leaders of tomorrow.

There are many powerful images in the movie, beginning with the initial shot of a one-legged boy kicking a soccer ball. Another lasting scene shows a boy putting together a rifle for war, with Koss saying he considers Right to Play a success if he can turn one potential soldier into an athlete instead.

Koss and Right to Play have changed the lives of far more than one child, as I learned first-hand when I toured one of the organization's sites in Zambia with Olympians Joey Cheek and Jenny Thompson. Some people say it is silly for Koss and others to devote so much effort and money to games in areas that need simple necessities as food, water and shelter. But as this film shows, play can be just as important to a child's heath and maturation.

Watch the film Saturday and go to the Right to Play website to learn more or make a donation.