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In grassroots programs involving tens of thousands of participants around the globe, visionaries are using athletics to tackle the most pressing problems of the developing world—from AIDS in Africa to violence in Rio. Can such projects make a lasting difference, or is the dream of salvation through sports too grandiose? SI senior writer Alexander Wolff set off on a yearlong journey to find the answer
I ran into Johann Olav Koss again in February 2010, at the Olympic oval in Richmond, B.C. The sight of Koss, then a temporary coach with Norway's speedskating team, transported me back 16 years instantly, happily.
I can't help it: Listmaking is a male thing, even more a sportswriterly thing, and I fastidiously rank Olympic Games. With its glitch-filled first week, the trucked-in snow and the fatal crash of a Georgian luger, the Vancouver edition will forever be an also-ran. The Winter Games of 1994, on the other hand, still surmount my desert-island alltime top five list of Olympics. Lillehammer abides with me not just because Koss won three gold medals and set three world records in three races; Dan Jansen finally skated to a gold himself; and 100,000 Norwegians camped overnight in the snow so they could cheer cross-country skiers with cowbells the next morning. It was the harmonious vibe, the intimate scale, the clean Scandinavian lines of the venues, even the crisp weather—as if the Norse gods had dropped a membrane over the town, sealing it off from the world's impurities.
The only breach of this hermetic idyll was on the pedestrian mall of Lillehammer's main street, where a few people solicited for a charity called Olympic Aid. They invoked Sarajevo, the Yugoslavian city that had hosted the Winter Games a decade earlier and, as a result of the war in the Balkans, remained under what would be the longest siege in modern history. The looping anthem of Sarajevo's suffering, Albinoni's Adagio in G Minor, haunted me every time I walked by. It seemed to whisper that, even as nature re-created a little patch of Eden for the playing of games, mankind still ginned up reminders of its fallen state.
And then the Perfect Olympics delivered its own latter-day god, a man to go forth into the Imperfect World and set it right. I'd watched Koss skate his triple at the Vikingskipet Oval. I'd heard him pledge his bonus money to Olympic Aid and challenge his countrymen to give 10 kroner each for every Norwegian gold medal, inspiring his government and fellow citizens to give $18 million over 10 days (page 70). For this as much as anything else, SI named Koss its 1994 Sportsman of the Year, an award he shared with U.S. speedskater Bonnie Blair. My colleague E.M. Swift wrote the story about the Olympic champion from Norway with a "headful of dreams and almost a lifetime in which to accomplish them."
We were now 16 years into that life left to live. When I saw Koss at the Richmond Oval, I asked, How goes the battle?
Sport, Koss replied, is doing nothing less than trying to save the world. Olympic Aid, since renamed Right To Play, now reaches 700,000 children in 20 countries during any given week. But Koss's outfit is only one player among hundreds in a burgeoning global movement. Today the field known generally as Sport for Development and Peace (SDP) extends well beyond nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) such as Right To Play. It attracts growing support from foundations and corporations, while governments and international agencies are eager to serve as partners to groups on the ground. And as the effectiveness of programs is more precisely measured, SDP's value as a tool for good is becoming more widely acknowledged. Even the stodgiest onlookers agree that sport "plays the hidden social worker," in the words of former champion miler Sebastian Coe, now chairman of the London 2012 organizing committee.
That is a good thing, for almost half the world's population is considered poor, and a full 1.4 billion people—one fifth of humanity, including more than half of all Africans—are extremely poor, living on less than $1.25 a day. As maladies of plenty such as obesity, diabetes and heart disease afflict the developed world, and elite pro sports reek of excess, SDP is a sobering counterpoint, spreading health messages, pacifying communities in conflict, preparing refugees for resettlement and providing what experts consider the simplest means of promoting development: improved status for women. At the turn of this century, when the U.N. drew up its Millennium Development Goals to cut extreme poverty in half by 2015 and eliminate it entirely by '25, Koss and Right To Play led the way in determining how sport could best help.
On the morning of the 2010 Olympic opening ceremonies, across Vancouver at a symposium at the University of British Columbia, the former Canadian ambassador to the United Nations, Stephen Lewis, delivered a confession. Lewis, who had served the U.N. secretary general as an anti-AIDS adviser, had long been skeptical of the value of sports. But SDP had won him over. "[Koss] understood early that you could use play to convey messages that aren't available anywhere else," Lewis told his audience. "Sport has become a development philosophy. Who would have imagined that to be possible? What began as an instinct has now become a profound social cause."