How Lillehammer set the standard

"It gave me a purpose to skate for something," Koss says. "It gave me a much better perspective of using my own talent for the better. Because sometimes when you train, you're complaining about a lot of stuff and not feeling comfortable. Why are you doing this? But then I saw kids affected by war and how they would do anything to be in my position. I was more appreciative of the position I was in and the talent I was given and that I should do my best. Also, if I could inspire a child to be in sport, that would be incredible.

"I brought that experience to the Olympics, and it helped me become a better athlete and a better person."

After winning the 500-meter race, Koss decided that if he medaled in the 1,500 meters, he would donate his bonus money to charity, although he wasn't quite decided on which. Then, just before the 1,500, a journalist handed him an envelope. When Koss opened it, he found a letter from a 14-year-old speedskater trying to survive the siege of Sarajevo.

"Can you help me?" the skater wrote. "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."

"I had been thinking about what I can do for three days and then I get this letter," Koss says. "It was like, 'Wow.'"

Koss won the 1,500, then announced in the postrace news conference that he was donating his entire bonus from Norway and sponsors (roughly $30,000) to Olympic Aid. The person overseeing the news conference suggested, "Why don't you challenge the Norwegian people to each donate 10 kroner [about $1.40]?" Yes, Koss replied, that's a great idea.

"And then the journalists in front of me started giving money," Koss recalls. "And it was like, 'OK, something big is happening here.'"

Sportswriters donating money at a news conference? Yeah, Koss had started something, all right. The Norwegian people eventually donated $18 million to Olympic Aid, and that wasn't the end of it. Not nearly.

After winning gold in the 10,000, Koss returned to Eritrea with sporting equipment for the children who had so inspired him. He continued to work with international charities over the coming years as well, but eventually grew frustrated with the approaches of many.

"I found that sport and play are not really taken seriously in international development," he says. "They're not used in international communities, and I thought, 'How is that possible?' I grew up in the most peaceful country in the world, and the No. 1 building block of our society is sport and play. Our ability to understand and respect rules and democracy, and our ability to respect one another, to try again harder, to strive for excellence -- all of that comes from sport.

"Here we are spending billions and billions of dollars for international development, but we're not using this extremely cheap, self-motivating and incredibly mobilizing tool where the needs are the most."

Koss changed that in 2000 by forming Right to Play, the humanitarian charity that uses sports to teach and develop children in war-torn and impoverished areas across the globe. The charity estimates it reaches 1 million children a week through its programs. Among its many sport ambassadors are Alex Ovechkin, Allyson Felix, Ronnie Lott, Julie Foudy, Mark Cavendish, Joey Cheek and Blair.

And it started with Koss' initial donation in Lillehammer.

Join the Discussion
blog comments powered by Disqus
You Might Also Like...