Skating slowly in circles around center ice was Bonnie Blair, a five-time Olympic gold medalist. Also on the rink was Travis Jayner, a short track skater who won a bronze medal at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, and Polina Edmunds, a 2014 Olympic figure skater. But instead of racing towards a finish line or landing double axels, the athletes were holding the hands of kids taking their first uncertain strides on skates-kids who might have Olympic dreams of their own.
Blair, Jayner and Edmunds were at Chelsea Piers in New York City for the Summertime Ice Classic, an event put on by the charity Right to Play. The pristine ice rink with a view of the Hudson River is half a world away from Eritrea, the African country that inspired Norwegian speed skater Johann Olav Koss to found Right to Play.
Koss visited Eritrea for the first time on a humanitarian trip in 1993, a few months before the Lillehammer Winter Olympics. The country had just declared its independence after 30 years of war, and evidence of the violence was still abundant. But the Eritrean children were still playing, even creating a makeshift ball out of a tied-up long-sleeved shirt.
Koss was struck by the sight of the children’s improvised games, and it gave him a new perspective on his own athletic career.
At the Lillehammer Games, Koss won three gold medals in the men’s speed skating events and broke three world records. He used his Olympic success to raise over $18 million for Olympic Aid, the organization that later became Right to Play, and returned to Eritrea with an airplane full of sports equipment.
“I met the President of Eritrea and said, ‘You need food and I have brought sports equipment. I made a mistake. I’m sorry,'” Koss recounted on the Right to Play website. “He looked at me and said, ‘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.’”
Koss officially founded Right to Play in 2000 with a mission to “enhance the quality of education, promote healthy behaviors and gender equality and build peaceful communities through a play-based approach to learning and development.” They currently have programs in 23 countries, from refugee camps in Jordan and primary schools in Uganda to early childhood centers in New York City.
Beyond Right to Play’s global staff, they have over 300 Athlete Ambassadors, proving that Koss has had no problems recruiting his fellow Olympians, and skaters in particular, to the cause.
Blair was involved from the very beginning, she says. The two speed skaters knew each other well, as they both dominated their respective fields in the early 90s-at the 1992 and 1994 Winter Olympics Koss has won a total of four gold medals and one silver medal, while Blair won five golds and a bronze from 1988 to 1994-and shared the cover of Sports Illustrated magazine’s Sportsman of the Year issue in 1994.
Jayner joined the organization more recently, explaining, “being a speed skater it was only natural for it to happen… not that I fought against it, but I didn’t want to be the cliché-the speed skaters always go to Right to Play.”
Other Olympic speed skaters who have become Athlete Ambassadors are Dan Jansen, Joey Cheek, Eric Heiden, Brittany Bowe and Patrick Meek.
So beyond Koss, what’s the connection between Olympic skaters, usually found racing around cold ice rinks in high-tech suits, and children in refugee camps learning about teamwork, conflict resolution and health issues through Right to Play’s programs?
Blair explained that when athletes like her get involved, they’re living examples of how sports can affect a child for the better. “We were kind brought up in sports-minded families. Sports helped mold us, and maybe to a certain extent take us away from the things that are not always perfect… There are so many things that sports do for a person.”
On Right to Play’s website, Cheek said, “The thing I love about Right To Play is that these kids are living in areas of the world under circumstances that are no fault of their own, but that just don’t allow them to pursue their dreams in the same ways we have been afforded. Through Right To Play, kids have opportunities they would otherwise never have that impact the futures of their whole communities.”
Jayner said that he especially appreciates Right to Play’s commitment to bring fun into the lives of children.
“For me, I’ve always said that most important part of my [skating career] was to have the most fun,” he said. “And once I started to get involved it made the most sense to me. Everything is just play-based, everyone is having fun and you’re learning through play. So it just kind of comes full circle. It was just really natural and perfect.”
He added that when he does Right to Play events with young athletes who might aspire to become Olympians, he hopes to serve as an example that it’s a dream within reach.
“Sometimes that [Olympic] dream just seems too big to be real-[Michael] Phelps goes to the Olympics or Apolo [Ohno] goes to the Olympics, or Bonnie [Blair] goes to the Olympics,” Jayner said. “These great names that have won multiple gold medals. That’s where it comes from. But you can do it too!
“That’s my biggest thing, to empower those kids and show them that it is possible.”