12/05/2013 07:26 pm ET Updated Feb 04, 2014

The Day I Met Mandela: My Lesson in Unity, Freedom and Equality Through Sport

I, like most people, am inspired by Nelson Mandela. In 2000, I had the good fortune of meeting him in a quiet, unassuming green room, which turned out to be an unforgettable and defining moment in my life.

We met at a pre-Olympic conference, where I presented him with the first-ever Child's Right To Play Award, on behalf of then-Olympic Aid. I will never forget how anxious I was, a young athlete with the dream of using sport and play to improve children's lives, meeting the man who had set the standard on promoting unity, freedom and equality through sport. Of course, as anyone who met him would attest, Mandela embodied greatness, but what I remember most were his quiet thoughtfulness, his humble presence and his gracious wisdom.

My nervousness at meeting him evaporated instantly, converted by his genuine and personal interest in learning more about my work. It was September -- only a couple of months before I would officially incorporate Right To Play as an organization in Canada. Sitting in that green room before we took the stage, I spoke to Nelson Mandela about my vision of what Right To Play could be.

My dedication to sport and play as development tools began when I visited the country of Eritrea only six months before the incredible 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, where I represented my home country of Norway. In 1994, Mandela became South Africa's first democratically elected President. A year later, he used sport to turn a World Cup Rugby match into a moment that would give his country a glimpse of unity and hope for a better future. Today, when we talk about Mandela's legacy, it is often that game -- that stroke of political genius and profound human insight -- that we talk about.

I remember the man they call Madiba with great fondness, admiration and gratitude. Not only was he a man who dedicated his life to peace and freedom, he was an incomparable leader who truly understood the power of sport.

His vision to unite a divided South Africa -- torn apart by apartheid -- through a game, inspired me to understand the broader impact sport can have. That, together with personal experience, helped form my vision of how to help children through sport and play. In many ways, it was the support, encouragement and inspiration I received that day from the great Nelson Mandela that fuelled my energy to establish Right To Play.

President Mandela understood that sport is an equalizer. It is a language without borders -- one we all speak. It is a human instinct, an expression of joy and an education. He believed no matter where you come from, no matter who you are, a game can change your life.

Nelson Mandela leaves us as one of the most influential leaders in history. He earns that title not for his brutality or his iniquities, but for his compassion, his vision and his enduring faith in humankind's ability to make the world a better place.

I call on all world leaders, all community leaders, all teachers, all parents, and all children around the world to follow in the footsteps of this great man. To read his playbook and replicate his moves. Nelson Mandela understood that sport -- a game -- could change a country and the world. In that, he forever changed the game.

Johann Koss is Founder, President and CEO of Right To Play -- a global organization that uses the transformative power of play to educate and empower children facing adversity. Right To Play reaches one million children across more than 20 countries through regular weekly sport and play activities that help build essential life skills and better futures, while driving lasting social change. Visit

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