THE INSPIRATION BEHIND RIGHT TO PLAY
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 heroeized 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.“IT GAVE ME 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.’
And the rest is history.
Right To Play is a global organization that uses the transformative power of play to educate and empower children facing adversity. Through playing sports and games, Right To Play helps children in more than 20 countries to build essential life skills and better futures, while driving lasting social change. Founded in 2000 by four-time Olympic gold medalist and social entrepreneur Johann Olav Koss, Right To Play is headquartered in Toronto, Canada, and has national offices in Canada, the Netherlands, Norway, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, the United States and regional offices in Africa, Asia, the Middle East and South America. Its programs are facilitated by 600 international staff and nearly 13,500 volunteer Coaches.
ABOUT RIGHT TO PLAY THAILAND FOUNDATION
Right To Play Thailand Foundation, registered in Thailand in 2007, implements programs using sport and play-based activities as an innovative and dynamic learning tool within a comprehensive and holistic approach to children and youth education and development.
Right To Play Thailand Foundation implements 2 major programs in Thailand, one of which is the Life Skills Development Program that implements play and activity-based learning activities associated with developing life skills through a learner centered and experiential learning approach in partnership with Office of the Basic Education Commission (OBEC), Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Justice. The Sport and Play Program for Burmese Refugees is the other major program which trains refugee community members to provide children and youth living in this protracted refugee situation with a sense of normalcy as they deliver holistic child development activities.
Right To Play Thailand Foundation currently has more than 30 local and international staff many of whom with backgrounds in facilitation and sport for development.