SEPTEMBER 15, 2007
VOLUME 4 NO. 15

PHYSICIAN LIFE

Olympian doc's sports charity heals wounded kids

Speed skater Johann Koss gives war-ravaged kids a Right to Play



Dr Johann Koss joins the fun at a Uganda refugee camp
Photo: Right to Play International

Can sport deliver children from the horrors of sex slavery and war? Olympic speed skating champ and physician Johann Olav Koss thinks it can. His charity Right to Play works with kids in 24 war-torn countries, building sports facilities from football fields to basketball courts, and providing equipment for the kids. They also provide counselling and life skills training to the troubled kids. The goal is to improve both the kids' mental and physical health. "Sport is not a luxury," says Dr Koss. It's a tool for development, helping kids grow and become active members of their communities. "It's about children playing and being children."

And it seems to be working. Take the kids at Uganda's Imvepi refugee camp, a mix of former child soldiers, sex slaves and war-displaced kids. Many fled genocides in neighbouring Sudan and Rwanda, bearing mental and physical scars too painful for any kid to handle. There's the boy who was abducted by rebels and trained to be a soldier. And the girl, also abducted by a rebel group, forced to work as a sex slave. As so often happens, she became pregnant and was cast out by her community. She wrote to Dr Koss at Christmas to tell him that after taking part in the Right to Play program she was accepted back into her family and community. "Seeing the change in these kids' lives is one of the most rewarding aspects of the program," says Dr Koss, head of Right to Play.

BLADES OF GLORY
Dr Koss's involvement with Right to Play dates back to his speed skating days, just before the 1994 Winter Olympics in his native Norway. The charity was then called Olympic Aid and enlisted athletes to raise awareness for poverty in Africa. The Oslo med student travelled to Eritrea and saw first hand the poor conditions that the children lived in.

He returned home to compete in the Olympics — earning three gold medals — and donated a good portion of his prize money to the charity he'd come to admire. The organization grew quickly beyond its original scope. They restructured, moved out from under the Olympic umbrella and became Right to Play with Dr Koss at the helm in Toronto. So how did a Norwegian doctor end up running an NGO in Canada?

"I married Belinda," Dr Koss says. Yes, that Belinda — Belinda Stronach. The couple met in London in 1999 and married later that same year. The marriage was short-lived — they divorced after three years — but by then, Dr Koss had fallen for his adopted country and decided to establish the charity's headquarters in Toronto.

He then faced another tough choice. "The focus you have to give medicine needs to be 100%, and the focus to give to Right to Play needs to be 100% also," says Dr Koss. "It was very hard to leave medicine, but what I'm doing right now is a great alternative. And my medical background has helped bring the health aspect into this organization."

IT TAKES A VILLAGE
Nowhere is this more apparent than at Imvepi, where Right to Play has been working since 2002. With the help of UN organizations like UNICEF and UNHCR, the charity started educating kids about HIV and how to protect themselves from the virus. They also teach them problem-solving and other life skills for the future.

The sports part of the program gives the boys an outlet for their aggression and the girls a fresh respect for their bodies, says Dr Koss. Many end up working for the charity. "They're looking after other children and mentoring them."

But funding is a chronic problem. And Dr Koss partly blames his adopted homeland. "Canada made a commitment forty years ago to increase international aid from 0.3% to 0.7% of the GNP," says Dr Koss. That adds up to a hefty $175 billion. Unfortunately, although Prime Minister Harper pledged to fulfill Lester B Pearson's promise, no solid effort has been made. In fact, the PM earned harsh criticism from U2's Bono and Ms Stronach among others at June's G8 summit in Germany for reportedly blocking an agreement to increase aid to Africa.

Still, there's hope, says Dr Koss. With a little less focus on the politics, and a little more focus on the humanitarian aspect, maybe a plan will come about, he says.

In the meantime, he keeps up his skating by strapping on his roller-blades — "even a former athlete needs to watch his weight," he jokes — and works at growing the charity so he can help even more kids discover the healing power of sport.

 

 

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