It was only a few months before the 1994 Lillehammer Winter Olympics, when Norwegian speed skater Johann Olav Koss led a humanitarian trip to the newly formed African country of Eritrea. As an ambassador of the organization Olympic Aid (to later become Right To Play), the athlete came face-to-face with the realities of life in a country emerging from decades of war.
As children played amidst burned out tanks, surrounded by the images of war martyrs, one boy stood out and crystallized an idea for Johann that would write the future of Right To Play:
"I met a group of boys, and one of them was very popular," says Johann. "I asked him why and he said 'can't you see? I have long sleeves'."
The boy then took off his shirt, rolled it up and used the sleeves to tie the shirt up into a ball that the kids used to play. 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 violence, and yet, surrounded by a legacy of war, they wanted one thing–the same thing every child wants, regardless of circumstance: the opportunity to play.
"It gave me a reason to skate."
The following February, Johann skated in the 1994 Lillehammer Winter Olympics, and made history by breaking three world records and winning three gold medals in the men's 1,500m, 5,000m and 10,000m speed skating events.
Remembering the boys in Eritrea, he pledged his gold medal bonus to Olympic Aid and asked his fellow Norwegians to donate a few dollars for every gold medal won by Norway at the games.
They won 26 medals. A few days later, he had raised more than $18 million.
Johann returned to Eritrea with a proper ball for the boy in the long sleeves and his friends. He also brought an airplane full of sports equipment to a country in dire need of food and basic necessities. The Norwegian media labelled him: a fool.
"I met the President of Eritrea and said, '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.'
Even though it could have ended there," Johann recalls. "It felt like a starting point to something different. This was just the beginning."
And the rest is history.