To follow Johann Olav Koss around Sydney for a day is to reawaken to the fact that not all superstar athletes are greedy boors. An IOC member, four-time speed skating gold medalist and SI's 1994 Sportsman of the Year, Koss, 31, runs the philanthropic group Olympic Aid. He receives no salary, living instead off his diminishing savings, the fruits of his speed skating career. "He's an Olympic champion, a humanitarian and a good-looking Norwegian," says U.S. long jump great and Olympic Aid colleague Mike Powell. "How are you going to beat that?"
In his role with Olympic Aid, which establishes grassroots athletic programs for refugee children around the world, Koss (above right, with Powell) has made several trips to Eritrea, trying, as he puts it, "to bring the ideals of sport" to youngsters displaced by the recent border war with Ethiopia. Koss also guided Eritrean sports officials through the Olympic qualifying process. "Our participation is our gold medal," says Abraha Ghermazion Habtezion, president of Eritrea's Olympic committee, which sent its first three athletes to the Games. "We owe much to Johann."
Koss attacks his mission with indefatigable energy. Last Thursday was a typical day. He woke at five and jogged for 45 minutes. At seven he met with sporting goods retailers to put the squeeze on them for equipment donations. At nine he laid out Olympic Aid's goals to an executive of the General Association of International Sports Federations. At 10 Koss talked politics with Powell and Olympic delegates from Eritrea, and at 11:30 he met with an adviser to Australian prime minister John Howard. After putting out a small fire related to Olympic Aid's online auction of Games memorabilia, Koss headed to the Olympic Village for a three-hour meeting with Ethiopia's delegation, during which he arranged for Haile Gebrselassie to take a ceremonial lap with Eritrean runner Yonas Kifle after Monday's 10,000 meters. (The peace gesture never came off: Kifle didn't make it in time because of a transportation snafu.) Then it was off to nosh with Norway's Princess Martha Louise at a reception. News that two athletes had failed drug tests squelched Koss's plan to actually see an Olympic event. Instead he headed to an IOC drug commission meeting that lasted until 2 a.m.
Earlier Powell had asked Koss if a scheduling conflict would pose a problem. "Nothing is a problem," Koss responded. Said Powell, "That's what the man's about."