right to play's story
We are a global organization, using the transformative power of play to educate and empower children and youth.
Through playing sports and games, we teach children essential life skills that will help them overcome the effects of poverty, conflict and disease so that they can create better futures and drive lasting social change in their communities and beyond. Founded in 2000 by four-time Olympic gold medalist and social entrepreneur Johann Olav Koss, our programs are facilitated by local volunteer Coaches and international staff.
IT ALL STARTED WITH A POPULAR BOY IN LONG SLEEVES
In late 1993, just a few months before the opening ceremonies of the 1994 Lillehammer Winter Olympics, a young speed skater by the name of Johann Olav Koss led a humanitarian trip to the small African country of Eritrea. Working as an ambassador of the organization Olympic Aid (later to become Right To Play), the Norwegian athlete found himself face-to-face with the realities of life in a country emerging from decades of war. As children played amidst burned out tanks, under the watchful eyes of war martyrs portrayed as heroes on surrounding posters and murals, it was one boy who crystallized the epiphany for Johan that would write the future of Right To Play.
“I met a group of boys, about 12-years old. 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 on this – 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.
“It gave me a reason to skate.”
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.
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’.”
“Even though it seemed like the end, it felt like a starting point to something different. This was just the beginning.”
And the rest is history.