Johann Olav Koss, CM, speed skater, founder of Right To Play International (born 29 October 1968 in Drammen, Norway). Koss won a total of four gold medals and one silver medal for his native Norway in long track speed skating during the 1992 and 1994 Olympic Winter Games. Following his retirement from speed skating in 1994, Koss moved to Australia, where he earned his MBBS (bachelor of medicine and surgery) degree at the University of Queensland in 1999. Shortly after, he moved to Canada and settled in Toronto, where he became the founder, president and chief executive officer of Right To Play.
Johann Koss was the oldest of three boys born to parents Arne Koss, a heart specialist, and Karen Sofia Koss, an obstetrician-gynecologist.
As a child, Koss visited countries such as India, Egypt and Nepal, with his parents and brothers Hans Christian and Haakon. His parents wanted specifically to show their children the living conditions of those less fortunate.
Speed Skating Career
Koss first started speed skating at age seven. In a 1994 article in Sports Illustrated, his first coach, Svein Hàvard Sletten, remembers that Johann did not have “a special talent for skating,” but was committed to training. This included cross-training: at age 12, Koss went on long bike rides with his father so he could improve his stamina. The following summer, he entered several 140 km cycling competitions.
As a teenager, Koss was committed to both training and academics. He enrolled in a national sports school in Norway, and regularly studied between speed skating races.
“I’ve always needed something else to concentrate on besides sport. To be just involved in one thing is like standing on one leg. If you break that leg, you will fall. But if you have two legs, then you have something else to turn to,” Koss told E.M. Swift of Sports Illustrated in 1994.
Koss won the Norwegian National Junior Speed Skating Championship in 1987. Three years later, in 1990, he won the men’s World Allround Speed Skating Championship in Innsbruck, Austria. He successfully defended his title in 1991 in Heerenveen, the Netherlands.
By the end of the 1991 speed skating season, Koss had set the world record in the men’s 3,000 m, 5,000 m, 10,000 m and Big Combination events (the Big Combination is a bundle of four races — the 500 m, 1,500 m, 5,000 m and 10,000 m).
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 became the star of the Norwegian Olympic team. On home soil, he won three gold medals, setting world records in the men’s 1,500 m, 5,000 m and 10,000 m events.
Olympic Aid Athlete Ambassador
In 1992, the Lillehammer Olympic Organizing Committee launched Olympic Aid, a humanitarian program created to help victims of the war in Sarajevo, the city that had hosted the 1984 Olympic Winter Games. Olympic Aid expanded to include countries in Africa, Asia, the Middle East and Latin America in 1993. Athlete ambassadors were assigned different countries to help fundraise for the program.
In 1993, Koss became ambassador to the country of Eritrea in northern Africa, which had achieved independence from Ethiopia in 1991, after a 30-year war. Prior to his appointment, Koss had donated $14 per month to the Save the Children charity, which was co-ordinating the Olympic Aid program in Eritrea and helping rebuild schools in the country.
Koss traveled to Eritrea as an ambassador for Olympic Aid in September 1993, prior to the start of the speed skating season. His training was not going well, and Hans-Trygve Kristiansen, the Norwegian speed skating team coach, believed a break from training would be positive for Koss.
Only a few months later, Koss dominated the 1994 Olympic Winter Games in Lillehammer. Inspired by what he had seen in Eritrea, he 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.
Following the 1994 Olympic Winter Games in Lillehammer, the Norwegian government wanted to build a statue of Koss. However, Koss convinced the Norwegian government the money would be better spent if it were directed to Olympic Aid initiatives, which received $1 million. Koss also put his speed skates up for auction and donated another $100,000.
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.”
UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador
Koss retired from speed skating immediately after the 1994 Olympic Winter Games in Lillehammer. On 19 December 1994, he was named a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador, as the organization’s “special representative for sports.”
As a UNICEF ambassador, Koss became an advocate for children with disabilities and those affected by war. In 1995, he visited Ethiopia and Vietnam, and a year later visited Rwanda. While in Ethiopia, Koss visited children working on the streets who were part of UNICEF’s HIV/AIDS education program. While in Rwanda, Koss helped bring sport and recreation to children who were traumatized by war.
Right To Play
From 1996 to 1999, Koss lived in Australia, where he studied medicine at the University of Queensland and earned a bachelor degree in medicine and surgery (MBBS). In 1999, he married Canadian businesswoman (and future politician) Belinda Stronach and settled in Toronto. The following year, 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.
Koss would be the chief executive officer (CEO) of Right To Play from 2000 to 2015. While CEO, he also completed an Executive MBA (2004) at the Rotman Business School at the University of Toronto. 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.
In 2015, Kevin Frey took over as CEO. However, Koss remains very involved with Right To Play, as the founder of the organization and as a member of the international board of directors. Koss continues to fundraise for the organization and works alongside Frey.
Koss has also been a strong voice against drugs in sport. In 1997, he became chair of the Norwegian Government Forum against Drugs and Doping. A year later he joined the International Olympic Committee’s Athlete’s Commission (1998–2002), and was on the executive board of the newly-formed World Anti-Doping Agency (2000–02), based in Montréal.
Koss lives in Toronto with his wife Jennifer, whom he married in 2009 (he and Belinda Stronach divorced in 2003). They have three children — Aksel, Annabelle and Andreas.
Honours and Awards
In addition to his outstanding athletic achievements, Koss has won several awards for his humanitarianism. They include the Jackie Robinson Humanitarian Award (1994), the Carter Center Child Survival Award (1996), the UNICEF Honorary Award for Outstanding Support to Children (1996) and the Newman’s Own Award (2011), which is presented to a person who has used his or her professional achievement for philanthropic service and/or leadership. He has also received the St. Moritz Award (2011), which is presented to a person who deserves recognition for commitment to civil society and social issues, and the LEGO Prize (2013), which is presented to an individual who has made an extraordinary contribution on behalf of young people or children.
On 13 May 2016, Koss became the first Norwegian citizen to receive the Order of Canada.