Interview: Johann Olav Koss

The Right to Play CEO on how the charity is dealing with its banishment from the Games

by Jonathon Gatehouse

PHOTOGRAPH BY SIMON HAYTER

Photograph by Simon Hayter

Johann Olav Koss is an Olympic speed skating legend: the winner of four golds, including three in front of his home crowd in Lillehammer, Norway, in 1994. But to Canadians he’s perhaps better known as the CEO of Right To Play (or the former husband of Belinda Stronach).

He spoke to Maclean’s about how the charity, which focuses on improving the lives of children through sport, and is usually a fixture in the athletes’ village, is coping with its banishment from the Vancouver 2010 Games.

Q: Right To Play was born out of the Olympics, yet you are not officially allowed to be here. Did you ever get an explanation of why?
A: No. I got a letter saying they didn’t want to renew the contract. All the rest is speculation, but it clearly started with sponsorship confusion. [GM is an official Olympic sponsor; Mitsubishi is one of Right To Play’s backers.]

Q: Did they refuse to tell you why?
A: I never really went back and asked.

Q: You knew why?
A: Yeah.

Q: But at one point it looked like you had worked out a deal with the Vancouver organizing committee. What happened?
A: Yes, I thought we had a deal with VANOC, but then we weren’t agreeing on what we could do, and it got escalated to the International Olympic Committee. Then the IOC told us they weren’t going to work with us anymore. Our contract was always with the IOC.

Q: But Right To Play is here, working with Roots and the CBC, who also used to be inside the Olympic tent, but are now out. How does that change things?
A: We have a really great presence, with our World of Play pavilion, near BC Place and the medal ceremonies. And we have a TV studio at the CBC; it’s a new opportunity to tell stories. But we’re not inside the athletes’ village, so we don’t get the same chance to educate the athletes. We are in a Mitsubishi dealership—literally across the street—but it’s not the same. We don’t have the same opportunities to advocate.

Q: You’ve always had such success in attracting Olympic champions to the cause, people like Ian Thorpe, Clara Hughes and Adam van Koeverden. Some of them are here. Can they act as your proxies or missionaries?
A: Absolutely. They are amazing ambassadors. But there are limitations now from the IOC. You are not allowed to promote a humanitarian issue during the Games.

Q: What is the power of play?
A: I’m stunned by it—what it does for the development of a child. It gives them that inner self-confidence and imagination. In earlier stages, it helps form language, and the ability to connect with others; it develops the musculoskeletal system. In the formative years it gives you a sense of community and belonging. This is all done through play in one sense or another.

Q: You had a lot of proud moments in your sporting career. What has been your proudest moment with Right To Play?
A: It’s hard to pick just one. I went to the Nakivale refugee camp in southwest Uganda, near the border of Congo and Rwanda, where we started a program in 2001 and built a community centre. Many of the refugees have repatriated to Rwanda, but there’s a group of about 25 coaches who are still active. They’ve been volunteering for more than eight years on a weekly basis. The leadership skills they have, the respect they have for the kids, their belief in the program—it was amazing.

Q: You are inside the Olympic bubble as a coach for Norway. Was that a back-door way to get Right To Play into the Games?
A: No, not at all. In fact, I’m under the same restrictions as the athletes. I can’t have any information on me, or wear the logo when I’m inside the Olympic venues. But I’m fine with that. I have a big heart for this sport. And my friends in Norway convinced me to help out. It’s great to be involved again.

Q: I don’t know how many Canadians remember Lillehammer, when you donated your winnings to the charity, and challenged your countrymen and women to give money for each medal Norway won. That $30,000 in seed money grew to $18 million over just 10 days. It’s one of the great Olympic moments.
A: That was amazing.That is also one of my proudest moments, seeing how the people of Norway responded.

Q: With a story like that, springing from the Olympics and giving birth to a charity that has been driven by Olympians, what does it say about the Olympic movement that such a charity isn’t allowed to be here?
A: You should ask them that question. But if you read the writings of Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Olympic Games, you realize that it’s all about the inspiration of physical activity and play and sport. It’s about education more than anything. Pierre de Coubertin was a phys-ed teacher, literally. And of course, the ancient Olympic Games were a way to break down barriers and stop the fighting. And those two elements are what we have been building our organization upon. It’s very, very similar to the Olympics. That has been my call to the Olympic movement.

Q: Are you personally disappointed at the way things have worked out?
A: Of course.

Q: Has it changed the way you view the Olympics?
A: The Olympics are huge. The ideals of the Olympics haven’t changed because they kicked us out. I mean, come on! But I wish that the people within the Olympic movement who are responsible for managing its values and principles could have seen a benefit in us working together. That’s what I’m disappointed about.




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Interview: Johann Olav Koss

  1. Right To Play seeks to impose a radical feminist agenda on developing countries, and I am uncomfortable with the (mis)use of .the word right in their name, given the propensity of leftists to view rights like rabbits one pulls out of a top hat at one's convenience. Essentially, they want to force boys and girls to play together rather than let nature take its course. Sports for kids: yes. Forcing radical feminism on them: no.

    • That might be the most uniformed thing I have ever heard, OnTheJob. You ought to be ashamed of yourself for trying to sound intelligent when you have clearly not informed yourself as to how Right To Play operates. RTP always operates within the rules of a society and works closely with local governments to ensure societal norms are respected.
      Yours is a very trite, petty and blind way of viewing the world in general. Good Luck in life.

    • No, seriously OnTheJob, tell us you're just being a tactless troll here.

      As someone with the capacity to hit a button that says 'comment', you should also have have the ability to do a simple internet search and learn a bit more before you spew. Take a few minutes to learn about Right To Play and how they operate. Each host community shapes and is responsible for a RTP project. The community determine how the power of sport can lead to a healthier, happier community within local social norms. Some RTP projects have enabled communities to develop spaces where girls play on their own as a group. Other RTP projects have been focused on boys by using sport to encourage boys to take part in school education.

      As for use of the word 'right', it takes Google just a few seconds to find you the whole text to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Read article 31. It is short so you should be able to handle it, and it is part of the inspiration for the organization's name.

    • You have successfully demonstrated that: a) you have virtually no understanding of Right To Play's values, principles and methodologies, and b) you have virtually no understanding of radical feminism. The right to play is actually no trompe l'oeil – it's a fait accompli. That is as long as you subscribe to international frameworks like the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (see Article 31). Indeed, the CRC has been ratified by all countries in the world save 2 (still waiting on United States and Somolia). Do we have a long way to go? Yes. Is Right To Play helping? Absolutely. Ask any of the 700,000 children they are reaching each week.

  2. @OnTheJob: you had me ROFL with your statement! You are very funny.
    Johann Olav Koss is great. Hope to see more of him in the years to come.

  3. How did such a balanced, generous guy end up with Stronach? The mind boggles.

  4. Great info.To be frank the interview section really rocks.Thanks for sharing.

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