Eritrea is a hard-bitten land on the Red Sea, where famine and war have long flattened people into a common squalor. Nonetheless, during a visit there in the fall of 1993, shortly after Eritrea had declared independence from Ethiopia, Norwegian speedskater Johann Olav Koss found, among a clutch of children, one boy who claimed elevated status. Mystified, Koss asked why.
"Can't you see?" the boy replied, indicating his shirt, the only long-sleeved one in the group.
The visitor understood even less, given the desert heat. "They were laughing at me," recalls Koss, who had come to Eritrea as an ambassador for a fledgling development effort called Olympic Aid. "Then he took off his shirt. The sleeves turned into knots, the shirt became a ball, and off they went to play soccer. If that boy wasn't there, they didn't play."
Koss promised the kids he would return after the Lillehammer Olympics with a real soccer ball. Back in Norway, after winning three gold medals, Koss donated his $30,000 in bonus money to Olympic Aid and appealed to his countrymen to pitch in. Koss's example went viral, and people around the world created a cascade of giving. In the months following the 1994 Games, Koss enlisted the children of Norway to help keep his promise to their counterparts in Eritrea. That's how he found himself sitting on the tarmac in Oslo in May '94, in an airliner crammed with almost 13 tons of donated sporting goods—so many balls and shoes and jerseys that most of the seats had been removed.
But as he waited for takeoff, Koss couldn't ignore the hole in his gut. The day before, he had been ripped in a column in Aftenposten, Norway's most influential newspaper. "It basically said, What an idiot, " Koss recalls. " 'Eritrea will be out of food by September, and he's taking sports equipment to hungry children.' I felt terrible—certain that I'd made a big mistake."
The nerves persisted when Koss landed in Eritrea and made his way from the airport, through streets lined with people waving Norwegian and Eritrean flags, to the presidential palace. There, upon meeting president Isaias Afewerki, he led with an apology. "No, no," Afewerki replied, as the same Aftenposten reporter who had criticized Koss looked on. "This is the greatest gift we have ever received. This is the first time we've been made to feel like persons and not just things to be kept alive."
In the years since, Koss and Right To Play, the organization that evolved from Olympic Aid, have vindicated his instinct that sport "is more than a diversion." Their work in Sierra Leone is one of many success stories: After an 11-year civil war in the country, Right To Play programs brought purpose and structure to daily life in the refugee camps, among boys who'd served as child soldiers and girls who'd been subject to violence and exploitation. "The boys had a physical outlet for their aggression," Koss says. "The girls developed respect for their bodies." Most participants are now reintegrated into their old villages. In the camps, relief workers reported, sport served as "the engine of life."
Koss often reflects on that early mission to Eritrea. "Now I know that bringing equipment isn't really what's needed. What's really needed," he says, "is the training of staff on the ground."
RED MEANS GO Koss, a three-time gold medalist in Lillehammer (above), heads up Right To Play, whose programs reach 700,000 children in 20 countries during any given week.