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giving his all
E.M. Swift
December 19, 1994
Johann Olav Koss set the standard in something even more important than Olympic speed skating—generosity of spirit
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December 19, 1994

Giving His All

Johann Olav Koss set the standard in something even more important than Olympic speed skating—generosity of spirit

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All over Norway, kids began bringing sports gear to schools that had agreed to serve as transfer stations. Then trucks, donated by companies contacted by Koss, picked up the stuff and delivered it to Oslo. Twelve tons of equipment was gathered, so much that half the seats in the chartered plane—donated, of course—carrying everyone and everything to Eritrea had to be removed to accommodate the gear. Koss also arranged for a group of young Norwegians to accompany him on the trip: 10 children ranging in age from 11 to 15 from live different schools. He thought it was important that they be involved, start to finish, in the process. Then he made sure that there was a journalist along from each town that was sending a child, so the kids' stories would be seen back home. "That can stimulate the people to try to give more," he says. "The whole thing didn't cost us one krone. Everyone worked free."

There were critics, of course, some of whom asked, How can you take soccer balls to a nation in need of food and clothing? It bothered Koss. "My answer to that is, they need both," he says. "All people have the right to primary needs like food and shelter. But it's easy to stop there and not give the secondary needs, the needs outside their stomachs. Sport is more than a diversion, it is a means of social rehabilitation from war. In Eritrea it's a good reason for children to go to school. The people tell me they want this equipment. They say. 'Then we feel we are persons and not just something to be kept alive.' "

"We went to a tank graveyard," Cazeneuve, one of 20 journalists on the trip, remembers. "Kids were playing all over the tanks. Climbing on the barrels of the guns. Pretending to shoot them. Koss saw that and said, 'A lot of people will say, "Why are you bringing sports equipment to this place?" Look at the kids here. Their only heroes are soldiers. At some point you have to save the souls of the next generation.' "

Nor did Koss end his association with Eritrea with that visit. He returned there in July, a month after the 13 young coaches he had recruited from Norwegian sports schools had visited Eritrea to help set up programs in the schools rebuilt by Olympic Aid. Each coach was sponsored by a Norwegian company, and it is Koss's hope that the program will be self-perpetuating and that the returning coaches will recruit their own replacements.

Koss still has, after all, three years of medical school left. He's a full-time student. Yet he continues to steal time from his studies to lobby for the future of Olympic Aid, which, after raising some $10 million during the Lillehammer campaign and distributing it through established charities to those five wartorn places, is in peril of disappearing. "Johann wants to use his name to keep Olympic Aid alive," says Kapoor. "The Japanese in Nagano [where the 1998 Winter Games will be held] have more or less said they'd like to take over after [the '96 Summer Olympics in] Atlanta, but they feel it's too early to start now. If Atlanta were to pick up the torch of Olympic Aid, I really believe it would set off the tradition."

But the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games (ACOG) has, to date, shown little interest in picking up that torch, pleading a lack of resources. A lack of resources! The Lillehammer effort was run by an office staffed by four.

"We don't have the organization to run that sort of undertaking," says ACOG spokesman Bob Brennan. "You've got to realize that Olympic Aid is a Norwegian organization that wants its work carried forward. It has no official status within the International Olympic Committee. We suggested they approach the IOC."

Koss has done just that, giving two speeches before the IOC Centennial Olympic Congress in Paris in August, pleading that Olympic Aid become part of any future Games. "One of the goals of the Olympics should be to try to bring peace and prosperity to areas that don't have these things," Koss says. "It's important for sport, also. We have maybe gone too far in bettering our times and performances. Too much taking of drugs. Too much reaching for money. This maybe will show a different dimension of the sportsman."

The IOC congress politely listened to Koss's appeal and then moved onto other matters. But Koss hasn't given up. While he was in New York for the marathon, he approached the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), which had already signed an agreement of collaboration with the IOC about exploring the Olympic Aid fund-raising effort in 1996. UNICEF officials were intrigued. Still, they would need the approval of the ACOG, which may or may not be forthcoming. UNICEF, which will officially name Koss a UNICEF special representative for sports on Dec. 19, stated in a press release, "Johann will help UNICEF in advocacy and fund-raising activities, particularly those related to disabled children and children affected by war.... Johann hopes that he can assist UNICEF to repeat the experience of Olympic Aid at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta."

The crowds are thick in Central Park, and when they see the T-shirts worn by Moe and Koss many of them yell, "Go, Achilles!" Moe is an hour ahead of his goal—he will finish in 6:31—and, alarmingly, he feels his heart fluttering. He's nervous but says nothing to his doctor or his wife, knowing they will make him stop. "Sometimes in life you just have to take a chance," he later says.

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