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An Olympian's Soccer Ball Diplomacy

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JOHANN KOSS

This week, we're profiling the Young Global Leaders attending the World Economic Forum's annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland.

Food, water, medicine, shelter. For most international children's advocates, these items are high on the list of urgent post-conflict aid. For Johann Koss, Founder of Right To Play International, sneakers and soccer balls top the list.

Johann, a four-time Olympic gold medalist in speed skating, was working as a UN Athlete Ambassador in 1992 when his travels through developing nations led him to wonder about the fate of children in impoverished or war-torn environments. He thought of their immediate rights -- to food, shelter, and education -- but remained fixated on their psychosocial needs, namely a child's right to play.

"I thought of my own childhood in Norway and how integral games and sports were. I couldn't understand why nobody was providing this for these children. Children are children everywhere, they have the same needs."

Johann founded his organization, then called Olympic Aid, on the premise that sports could play a vital role in rebuilding ravaged countries.

Initially, his fledgling organization was met with resistance from those who supported solely classroom based childhood programs. Johann highlighted the research backing the idea that sports and play programs complement the education initiatives making strides in the international development field. "The tools we develop increase the quality of their education," he said.

He recounts these arduous first few years for what evolved into Right To Play International, but Johann also remembers the moment he knew their work was having an impact.

"I was walking through the refugee camps in Sudan and we had built equipment and brought coaches to train and stay. We were leaving for Eritrea when one of the boys just burst out crying and said: 'You're leaving us? Now what are we going to do? How can we play?' I pointed out the coaches and told him that as long as he was in the camp, these activities would be here. And that smile on his face...for him we were doing an amazing thing."

And the success of Right To Play goes beyond anecdotal evidence. Over the last decade research institutions and international NGO's have recognized the importance of programs that address the grim psychological landscape aid workers confront in many countries. For Johann, addressing these issues remains paramount.

"Children living in refugee camps have only known destruction. They know how to fight and have anger and anxiety issues. The girls have been told they can't do anything. Our programs create some normalization for them. A playground or a field is a place for them to have a normal situation."

Beyond self-improvement for each child, Johann stresses the broader societal impact of Right To Play programs.

"The participants in our program are shifting the dynamics on the ground and are becoming leaders. They get life skills, they understand how to resolve conflict without violence. We teach them how to lead others in activities. In five to ten years you'll see leaders out of our programs going into all sorts of areas of societies and will form the future."

This week, at the World Economic Forum's annual meeting, Johann hopes to represent the needs of young people around the world.

"In Davos, I'll touch on my experience of the needs in the developing nations particularly from the children and youth perspective. I want to articulate the importance of holistic development of a child."

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