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Olympic Medalists Strike Gold in Beijing for Needy Children in Africa and Around the World

The Olympic aid motto “Every child has the right to play” has taken on new dimensions at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. The athletes themselves are partnering with corporate donors to transform their gold, silver, and bronze medals into matching contributions for underprivileged youth in more than 20 African, Asian, and Middle Eastern countries. The funds will provide equipment, instruction, and counseling in motivation, sportsmanship, and health guidance. All this is the work of the Right to Play organization, which was founded by Norwegian Olympic speed skating champion Johann Olav Koss. Koss says he has enlisted more than 40 current Olympic athletes, including Ethiopian track star Haile Gebrselassie, corporate health and medical services giant, Johnson and Johnson, and the long reach of the internet to enhance projects already underway in Ethiopia, Uganda, Sierra Leone, and many other countries.

“We have over 40 athletes as part of the medals grant program, where Johnson and Johnson is matching $20,000, $15,000, and $10,000 for every medal they are winning. And they have now more and more athletes signing up as well. In addition, we have given them bracelets. It’s called the Hearts of Gold and it’s bracelets for inspiration, where the athletes get one piece of it and there’s a copy bracelet, which they can give to the person that’s inspired them the most to come to the games. And over half the athletes, more than five thousand athletes, have picked up that bracelet,” he said.

First among the prize-winning athletes to win gold was swimmer Natalie Coughlin, who raised the first $20,000 donation for the Right to Play organization by winning the women’s backstroke event. Koss calls her a “fantastic athlete” who not only “won the gold. She also won two silver and three bronze (in Beijing) so she has actually a total of $80,000 in donations for us (Right to Play),” Koss noted. Adding the six medals Coughlin has won in China to her 2004 total of five medals at the Athens Olympics, Natalie Coughlin is now an 11-time Olympic medalist.

Olympic long-distance runner Haile Gebrselassie was an early recruit as one of Koss’ Right to Play Athletic Ambassador. It was in Eritrea and in Gebrselassie’s neighboring homeland of Ethiopia where Johann Koss found his inspiration to develop his Right to Play regimen of sport and play programs to improve health, build life skills, and foster peace for underprivileged children living in communities affected by war, poverty, and disease.

“Haile’s always a man who likes to stand up and say ‘I like to support Right to Play and he’s one of the big idols. In the country itself, Haile is such a role model for everybody looking up to him as one of the biggest heroes of his own nation,” says Koss.

Another aspect of the Right to Play programs in addition to the medal grants and the Olympic bracelets is a fellowship program, a three-month internship in a foreign country. It’s also underwritten by Johnson and Johnson. Recently, a two-time Olympian with a commitment to using the power of sport as a lifeline for children in Africa was named to an administrative fellowship program in Kampala, Uganda. She is Canadian badminton player Anna Rice. Koss says that Rice will take up her Right to Play fellowship next spring in Uganda’s capital, Kampala,

“She will go there in the spring of next year, and she will really get into working in the area of development, particularly in the programs we have in East Africa focused on sport and play as an educational tool for health prevention. And we all hear about the issues around HIV/AIDS. And the particular games she will be working with are these games: she will be educating children, and girls in particular, on how they can protect themselves from the disease. And that has been a very successful project. I’m excited that she will be their Olympic Ambassador in Kampala, Uganda for three months next year,” he said.

On Monday, Right to Play introduced an online auction that allows internet bidders around the world to acquire memorabilia from the Beijing Olympics that has been donated by the athletes and sponsors of the games to raise funds for the organization’s operations. Koss says the bids for a basketball shirt signed by the US Olympic men’s basketball squad drew considerable interest, as did the Olympic torch. The auction will continue online for several days in the next week after the Olympics closes and Koss says he hopes both the Right to Play web site and the eBay auction web site will continue to generate an enthusiastic response. He notes that the increased funding will allow the organization to expand the countries it operates in from 22 to 26 with the addition of Burundi, Botswana, and Kenya, as well as the group’s first Latin American venture, Peru.