Interview: Johann Olav Koss

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


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.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.