Right to Play: Stephen Lewis, Johann Olav Koss, Wilfreid Lemke, Benjamin Nzobonankira

I am a wannabe speed skater who belongs to a local short track club. When I found out that former 4 time Olympic Gold speed skater Johann Koss (founder and CEO of the humanitarian organization Right to Play) would be speaking at  the Chan Centre I jumped at the opportunity to attend.  Anyone interested in the speed skating world would be interested in hearing the legendary athlete speak in person along with Stephen Lewis (no slouch in his own area of expertise and a very inspiring humanitarian as well).

The topic was centred on how sport contributes to global development, and the ways in which sport aids children and youth in disadvantaged areas of the world.

Stephen Lewis, a passionate advocate and former UN Special Envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa spoke first. (actually after Mr. Lemke) I ‘ve never had the pleasure of hearing him speak and I have to say, he was amazing. Humour, of course, helps. Combine that with a passion for his topic, and a self deprecating sense of self,  all delivered in fine English and you have the recipe for inspiring awe. He was also able to help me make a connection that I heretofore had been unable to make myself – and that is the connection between sport/play and development.

He said that he had struggled with this connection until he met Johann Koss in 1996. Johann had an instinct/vision for an organization that he wanted to start that would focus on bringing play to disadvantaged children. It was clear that what Koss understood instinctively from his own experience was something that the development advocates had not yet articulated – that play is a conduit for humanity, self-expression, co-operation, team work, a desire to be well, a desire to improve. No matter how many times you might expressly articulate this, there is no better way to enact or facilitate than to give children the support and tools to do what they naturally do so well – play.

When Johann Koss spoke he talked about his childhood…how it was full of play and support from his community and family. It was on  his trip to Eritrea as a UN ambassador that he saw for himself that not all children have these advantages. He told the story of a boy he met who was popular because he owned a long sleeved t-shirt that could be rolled up and used as a soccer ball. Although these kids knew everything about soccer, they had never played with an actual ball.

So he went home and organized a soccer ball drive and brought a plane load to Eritrea. At the time the country was running out of food and he received bad press in his native Norway for bringing soccer balls when what the country really needed was food. When he met with the president/leader/emperor/allmighty/ head of the country he wanted to apologize and the president expressed an idea that resonated throughout the talk – that providing the tools to play – by facilitating something that is so fundamentally and instinctively human is exactly that – humanizing.

Benjamin Nzobonankira is a former child refugee from Burundi who is now a Right to Play coach also took the stage.  His life story is so starkly different from mine that mine somehow feels like an embarrassment of riches. He and his family left war-torn Burundi, fled Rwanda during the genocide, he and his mother and sister lived a hand to mouth existence in the forest for 4 months where ultimately his mother and sister died…Benjamin moved from refugee camp to refugee camp until he finally settled in one that was 2.5 miles large. He lived there for 12 years. He then talked about Right to Play and the impact that it had on his life in the camp.  He stood back from the podium and said, ‘play made me feel normal again’, ‘it made me who I am today'(he may also have been referring to Mr.Koss) I think you could hear a pin drop.

Afterwards a number of Olympic athletes(and RTP ambassadors) Silken Laumann, Ben Rutledge, Adam Kreek (amongst others), took the stage for the Call to Action.

My first action is that I want to let people know through my networks what this organization that Johann Koss (founder and CEO) does. Information on Right to Play is right here>>

Anyways, the world is full  of so many different kinds of people. It’s an elevating experience being around those who believe that the world can be made a better place. I much prefer that to cynicism.

Province story on Sport, Peace and Development talk>>

More on Sport and Society series>> All of these talks have been recorded for podcast and will be uploaded to the Globe and Mail website.

Sport, Ethics and Technology: Is High Performance Sport Inconsistent with Ideals and Ethics? Richard Pound

Sport, Peace and Development: How Can Sport Contribute to Positive Social Change? Stephen Lewis, Johann Koss, Wilfreid Lemke, Benjamin Nzobonankira

Sport and Inclusion: Are Major Sporting Events Inclusive of First Nations and Other Groups? Waneek Horn Miller, Shirley and Sharon Firth

Sport and Challenge: Is Anything Possible?  Rick Hansen, Dr. Bruce McManus

Sport, Legacy and Sustainability: Is it Worth It? Bruce Kidd

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1 Comment

Filed under Random Musing

One response to “Right to Play: Stephen Lewis, Johann Olav Koss, Wilfreid Lemke, Benjamin Nzobonankira

  1. No doubt Koss you are the Boss, an inspiration to be charished. I love you because I share same philosophy and i started the advocacy of sport for development and MDGs in year 2000.
    Pakistan badly and immediately need such programs at scale. i hope to look forward to your guidence and support.
    Best Regards
    Aamir Bilal
    CEO & Founder
    Sports Development Foundation

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