LONDON (Reuters) - Where once he was storming his way to Olympic gold medals, he now heads a global charity. Norwegian Johann Olav Koss does not do things by halves.
After a stunning triple-gold haul in the speed skating at the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, ‘Koss the Boss’ gave his winnings to the Olympic Aid charity, sparking off a flood of 18 million dollars’ worth of other donations over 10 days.
This benevolent act also took the Scandinavian, then 25 and on the brink of retirement, on a remarkable journey which ended with him becoming the head of the charity Right to Play.
Olympic Aid was set up in 1992 to show support for people in war-torn countries and areas of distress and later grew into Right to Play, which organizes sports events and provides the means for children to play.
Koss told Reuters he first witnessed the power of sport during a trip to Eritrea in 1993.
“Being an athlete you’re so focused on yourself and you don’t think you can do much to help,” he said, speaking from Vancouver.
“But that trip helped me realize that by promoting sport and play programs, and that through education, I could actually do something greater with my own career. It’s not that you do sport just for yourself.”
So successful is Right to Play that in the first quarter of 2009 it received 200 requests to start new programs.
Given the stellar names associated with the charity this comes as no surprise.
Right to Play can boast ambassadors such as Ethiopian marathon world record holder Haile Gebrselassie, 14-time Olympic swimming gold medalist Michael Phelps and English Premier League team Chelsea, who attended in force a charity day near London this month that raised some 200,000 pounds.
“The support is amazing. I can’t believe it sometimes,” Koss said at the event as Chelsea goalkeeper Petr Cech displayed a vicious slice serve while doing battle with British women’s tennis number one Anne Keothavong on a court nearby.
Despite his speed skating roots Koss knows the importance of having soccer players on board.
“It doesn’t matter if there’s a war going on, kids will still know the last results and injuries to players. It’s unbelievable.”
One Chelsea player Koss especially admires is Michael Essien, a huge name in Africa and his native Ghana in particular.
“He came to Ghana with us a couple of years ago and there were 10,000 people at the airport. They had to be taken out the back way. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
With cycling also hugely popular according to Koss, he has recently been involved with American outfit Columbia.
Team member Mark Cavendish told Reuters before the Tour de France that Koss’s vision had made a lasting impression on him.
“We had a presentation at the beginning of this year and it hit home,” said the 24-year-old Briton, who won six stages on this year’s Tour and next month will be in Edinburgh to start a charity cycle ride to London (www.students4righttoplay.org.uk).
”Some of the things Johann said he’d seen were shocking and made you realize how privileged you are. The fact he explained how they’re helping was quite appealing really.
“Any charity is good but you have to believe in one to want to do something for it.”
Right to Play work predominantly in Africa, Europe and South America, and Koss’s work has won him the admiration of American film producer Frank Marshall, whose cinema hits include the Indiana Jones series and who is trying his hand as a director by shooting a documentary about the former athlete and the charity.
“I love stories that are of ordinary people in extraordinary times. What we have (with Koss) is an extraordinary person in extraordinary times,” Marshall said recently on the set of another film he is making near Philadelphia.
While Koss has the support of many names worldwide, last year the International Olympic Committee (IOC) barred Right to Play from having access to athletes’ villages at the 2010 and 2014 Winter Olympics in Vancouver and Sochi, Russia, and the 2012 London Games in a dispute over sponsors.
“They told us we will not be allowed to be inside the Olympic village,” the Norwegian said, wholly undeterred.
”Obviously they can’t stop us being in the city, so we’ve managed to put up a place 50 meters from the main entrance (in Vancouver). We’ll have to talk to the athletes from the outside.
”I think it’s exceptionally wrong of the IOC but we cannot spend all our energy trying to convince them, we have to spend our energy on raising money.
“We have so many people who want to support us so we’ll leave them (IOC) to believe what they believe in. Sometimes you just have to understand what politics is about and move on.”
Despite the ban, Right to Play should have no shortage of support if the last Winter Olympics in Turin are anything to go by -- at those Games speed skaters Clara Hughes of Canada gave $10,000 (6,000 pounds) of her own money and American Joey Cheek donated $40,000.
Editing by Clare Fallon