Koss has cause, will travel Aid: Norway's Johann Olav Koss, a holder of three gold medals, seeks to raise $21 million in Atlanta for the world's needy children.

Atlanta Olympics

July 30, 1996|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN STAFF

ATLANTA -- Rwanda. A 4-year-old girl, wearing a blue dress, races through the streets on a wooden leg.

Eritrea. Kids look at a poster of their heroes, dead soldiers from a 30-year conflict. Cyclists race by, and the kids give joyous chase.

"What kind of heroes do you want for our kids?" said Johann Olav Koss, Norway's greatest speed skater, recounting the images that transformed him from an Olympic hero to a champion of children.

Koss, Norway's Michael Jordan, won three gold medals at the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer. He could have cashed in on fame and lived on easy street in Oslo.

Instead, he exchanged his skates for a volunteer job as the founder and driving force of Olympic Aid-Atlanta. His aim is to raise $21 million worldwide and funnel the cash to the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF).

This is real Olympic heroism, the kind that can't be packaged on television or confined to a playing field. Koss has traveled to such places as Bosnia-Herzegovina, Eritrea, Rwanda, Cambodia and Vietnam. He has worked with bureaucrats to grab an officially-sanctioned Olympic toehold in Atlanta -- no mean feat at the Games that have sold most of their soul to multi-national corporations.

Every night he auctions T-shirts for his organization. He hits up corporate sponsors. He tells the Olympic Aid story to anyone who will listen.

He is 27, still young enough to compete. But unlike a lot of Olympic stars who can't walk away from the spotlight, who can't conceive of a life beyond sports, he has moved on. Speed skating used to consume him. Now, the plight of children from war-ravaged lands compels him to act. He has even delayed completing medical school in order to help launch Olympic Aid-Atlanta.

"As an athlete, you can do something that helps," he said. "Sports, in this way, is a great thing."

Koss made his first humanitarian trip to Eritrea in May 1993, after hearing that aid hadn't been getting through. There's not much ice in Eritrea. There isn't even a word for speed skating in the country, so he just used the Norwegian word, "skoyter."

Koss spent a week learning about the country and its people, and also fitting in some training. Most Olympians won't even go around the block on an unscheduled trip, let alone take a humanitarian flight to Africa.

"Curiosity brought me there," he said. "I wanted to find out what was happening there. I trained with Eritreans. I was cycling. There was this big guy on a big bicycle with one gear, and he passed me on the hills. I asked myself, 'What am I doing here?' But when I left Eritrea, I felt it was a lifetime experience."

He wanted to help. At the 1994 Winter Olympics, he made constant pleas on behalf of the fledgling Olympic Aid group. When he won his third gold medal, the Norwegian government wanted to build him a statue in front of the gigantic speed-skating hall. But Koss asked for a donation instead, and got $1 million. He also contributed a $35,000 bonus for winning a gold medal, and put his speed skates up for auction, raising another $100,000.

In December 1994, Koss was named UNICEF special representative for sports. He went back to Eritrea and brought 12 tons of sports equipment. He traveled to other trouble spots, including Sarajevo, where the rink on which he won his first European championship was destroyed by shelling.

He knows that children who have experienced war have great needs, such as medicine and counseling. But he said sports can do much for a child battered by battle.

"People can be positive. They can reach a goal," he said. "In Eritrea, I saw children use wrapped-up T-shirts for a soccer ball. They were barefoot. So we got them balls and shoes. And I saw them perform acrobatic tricks, so we got them mats."

He talked about the little girl in Rwanda, the one with the beautiful blue dress and the wooden leg, the one "so determined to run."

"She had so much fun," he said. "You think, how important is this? She enjoyed her life, even in the cruelty. As an athlete, you can do something that helps."

Getting his group official status in Atlanta was as difficult as making bowling an official Olympic sport. He had to work the phones for months, then reached Andrew Young, the former Atlanta mayor, now the chairman of the board of the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games. Young told Koss he would get a spot in Atlanta.

So, Koss is here, amid all the corporate clutter and frantic sports action. How does he keep from growing cynical at the clash of cash and sports?

"I practice in front of my mirror every morning," he said.

"When you see the smile of a child, you know you can do something more. You can raise $21 million. I never had that kind of money. But if I can be part of a team that can reach 80 million children around the world, I'm proud of that."

Pub Date: 7/30/96

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