He had struggled during most of the 1993-94 season. A month before the Olympics, in a 5,000-meter World Cup race in Davos, Switzerland, he finished a sorry sixth, 17.41 seconds behind Rintje Ritsma of Holland. In a final tune-up in late January he was fifth in a 5,000 and eighth in a 1,500 in Innsbruck, Austria. Koss's right knee was inflamed with tendinitis from overtraining. He was unsure of his form, unsure of his equipment and, worst of all, uncertain in his head. As he approached his first Olympic race—the 5,000 meters—in the Vikingskipet arena in Hamar, Koss didn't know how he would perform in front of his countrymen. He hadn't a whit of a champion's arrogance.
That wasn't new. Koss had always been something of an over-achiever. His first coach, Svein Hávard Sletten, remembers that when he invited Koss to join his speed skating team at the Strom-men Club, near Oslo, when he was eight, the lad spent as much time in the snow as he did on the ice. "He was not a special talent for skating," says Sletten, now coach of the national team. "But he was a special talent for training. He wanted to train very hard, very young. That's good for the heart."
Koss was ranked 20th in his age group when he was 12, but he had already set a private goal to be world champion one day. To increase Johann's stamina, his father, Arne, a heart specialist, started taking him for long bike rides. By the time he was 13, Koss was riding in 140-kilometer races three or four times a summer. If Sletten had to miss speed skating practice, he never had to worry. "The other boys would want to play football, but Johann would say, 'No, we will train,' " Sletten recalls. "He took responsibility very early for his own training. If he did not do well in a race, it was never my fault. It was always his fault."
"I liked to train," says Koss. "Nobody pressed me. I was very far behind in skating until I was 15."
The next year he won his first age-group national championship. Koss then enrolled in a sports school for prospective national team members, and his training time increased to three to four hours a day. He studied hard too and always seemed to have a book in his hand. Sletten remembers watching Koss at the nationals when he was 16, studying English between races while the other boys were pacing nervously.
"I've always needed something else to concentrate on besides sport," Koss says. "To be just involved in one thing is like standing on one leg. If you break that leg, you will fall. But if you have two legs, then you have something else to turn to."
Koss never had the speed of a sprinter, so he concentrated on the distance events: the 1,500, the 5,000 and the 10,000. He missed making Norway's Olympic team in 1988, finished eighth in the worlds in '89 and then unexpectedly won the world speed skating championship in '90 at Innsbruck. His '91 season was his finest: Koss won 13 of 21 starts and set world records in the 5,000 and 10,000. "I felt I was now the best, and I didn't know if I wanted to skate anymore," he says. "I still wanted to skate in the Olympics, but I had lost some motivation."
Koss was among the favorites at all three distances at the 1992 Games in Albertville, but a week before the Olympics he developed pancreatitis and spent 48 hours in a hospital in Inzell, Germany. Obviously weakened from the illness, he finished a dismal seventh in the 5,000. Three days later he had recovered sufficiently to win the 1,500; later he took the silver in the 10,000. He refused to blame his illness for his performance, instead citing the complacency that had dogged him all season. "You get that way when you're champion," he says. "I was lucky it was only two years until the next Olympics."
In the summer of 1992 a fledgling program called Lillehammer Olympic Aid was launched to provide relief to the victims of war in Sarajevo, the city that had hosted the Winter Games 10 years before they were to come to Lillehammer. By the summer of '93, having already raised 27 million kroner ($4 million), Olympic Aid decided to expand its reach to include war-stricken children in Africa, Asia, Latin America, the Middle East and Bosnia. Each of these regions, along with Sarajevo, was assigned an "ambassador." a sports figure around whom fund-raising efforts could be centered. Koss was asked to be Olympic Aid's ambassador to Eritrea.
His name hadn't just been pulled out of a hat. For years Koss had been a steady contributor—100 kroner a month ($14)—to Save the Children, which was coordinating Olympic Aid's relief effort in Eritrea. A small country on the northeast coast of Africa, Eritrea earned its independence from Ethiopia in 1991 after a 30-year civil war. The money raised by Olympic Aid would help Save the Children rebuild a number of Eritrea's schools.