The Right To Play Red Ball is a symbol for the power an individual can have in inspiring and mobilizing a community.
Johann Olav Koss, Norwegian Olympian and Humanitarian
It may come as a surprise to many, as it did to me, that yesterday, November 19th. was International Men’s Day. Celebrated in over 70 countries, Men's Day was conceived on February 8th 1991 and inaugurated in 1992. The longest running celebration of International Men's Day is Malta, where events have occurred since February 7th 1994.
According to Wikipedia, "The Six Pillars of International Men's Day, include focusing on men’s and boys’ health, improving gender relations, promoting gender equality, and highlighting male role model. It is an occasion to highlight discrimination against men and boys and to celebrate their achievements and contributions, in particular for their contributions to community, family, marriage, and child care. The broader and ultimate aim of the event is to promote basic humanitarian values.”
When I read this, it got me thinking about some of the people I have met who have held up these values and there is one, in particular, I would like to mention: Johann Olav Koss.
At the 1992 Olympic Winter Games in Albertville, Koss won the gold medal in the men’s 1,500 m and a silver in the men’s 10,000 m. Two years later at the 1994 Olympic Winter Games in Lillehammer, Koss won three gold medals, setting world records in the men’s 1,500 m, 5,000 m and 10,000 m events.
In 1992, the Lillehammer Olympic Organizing Committee launched Olympic Aid, a humanitarian program created to support children in war torn countries. In 1993, Koss traveled, as their ambassador to the country of Eritrea in northern Africa.
Koss dominated the 1994 Olympic Winter Games in Lillehammer, and donated $30,000 to Olympic Aid. In an emotional press conference, he asked his fellow Norwegian Olympic teammates to donate as well. In all, he received $18 million from the Norwegian people over the next 10 days.
Koss returned to Eritrea in 1994, bringing a planeload full of sports equipment (over 10 tonnes). Although he was criticized at first by the Norwegian press for bringing soccer balls to a country in need of basic necessities, Eritrean president Isaias Afwerki thanked him: “This is the greatest gift we have ever received. For the first time, we are being treated like human beings — not just something to be kept alive. For the first time, my children can play like any child.”
On 19 December 1994, having retired from speed skating, he was named a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador, as the organization’s “special representative for sports.”
In 2000, living in Toronto, he took over Olympic Aid from the Lillehammer Olympic Organizing Committee and moved the organization to Toronto. Koss transitioned Olympic Aid from what was essentially a “fundraising vehicle” to an international non-governmental organization (NGO), renaming it Right To Play and was the chief executive officer from 2000 to 2015.
By the time he retired as CEO, the organization was running programs in 19 countries in Africa, Asia, Latin America, North America and the Middle East. With over 300 volunteer athlete ambassadors from more than 40 countries, as well as a staff of specially trained coaches, the organization uses play to educate and empower over a million children, using play and sports, both inside and outside the classroom.
Right To Play focuses on quality education, life skills, health, gender equality, child protection and building peaceful communities. In addition to working with children, Right To Play advocates with parents, local communities and governments to advance the fundamental rights of all children.
I have been privileged to meet Johann, through my work as an athlete ambassador and fundraiser for Right To Play. Hearing him speak passionately about the power of sport as a way to educate has been a great inspiration.
Of course, there is a long list of men who have had a positive influence on me from childhood, to the present day. Some have been on a personal level and some through business or my fundraising activities.
Whatever gender you may be, please take a moment to consider the men who have had a positive effect on your life and, if you have the chance, tell them.
Best of all, think of ways you can incorporate the “The Six Pillars of International Men's Day,” into your personal and business lives and become an inspiration to others.
About the Author
Martin Parnell is the Best-Selling author of MARATHON QUEST and RUNNING TO THE EDGE and his final book in the Marathon Trilogy, THE SECRET MARATHON-Empowering women and girls in Afghanistan through sport, was released on October 30th 2018. He speaks on having a “Finish the Race Attitude – Overcoming Obstacles to Achieve Your Full Potential” and has written for, or been covered by CNN, BBC, CBC, The Huffington Post, The Globe and Mail, The National Post, Runners World, Men’s Journal, Canadian Business, and Maclean’s.
In a five year period, from 2010 to 2014, Martin completed 10 extreme endurance “Quests” including running 250 marathons in one year and raising $1.3m for the humanitarian organization Right To Play. In 2016 he ran the Marathon of Afghanistan in support of Afghan women and girls running for equality. Find out more about Martin at www.martinparnell.com and see what he can do for you in the long run.