How speed skaters and Right to Play are inspiring kids around the world

Image Credit: instagram.com/righttoplayusa

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.” 


North Korea at the Winter Olympics

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With the upcoming Winter Olympics taking place in PyeongChang and tensions escalating on the Korean Peninsula, many are wondering whether North Korea’s actions will affect the Games. Here’s what fans should know about the history of North Korea at the Winter Olympics and their athletes’ prospects for 2018. 

An important note: the host city of PyeongChang is located in the northeast region of South Korea and should not be confused with the similarly spelled Pyongyang, which is the capital of North Korea. 

North Korea’s participation in the Olympics dates back to the 1950s. The Korean War effectively ended in 1953, when the United Nations and North Korea signed the Korean Armistice Agreement. Although there was never an official peace treaty between North and South Korea, meaning the two countries are still technically at war, the armistice established a ceasefire. It also led to the creation of the demilitarized zone (DMZ), located on the border of North and South Korea and about 40 miles away from PyeongChang. 

During the same year, North Korea, officially known as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, formed its own Olympic committee. Until this point, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) had recognized a single Korean Olympic entity, but after applying in 1956, the North Korean Olympic body joined the IOC in 1957. 

North Korea was first represented as an independent nation in the 1964 Winter Games in Innsbruck, Austria. North Korea had two cross-country skiers each compete in the men’s 30km and women’s 10km competitions. However, none of the athletes cracked the top 30. 

But on the ice, North Korea caught the speed skating world by surprise. Standing at 5’6, Han Pil-Hwa was a relative unknown in the women’s field in 1964. 

The Soviets were expected to dominate the 3000m discipline like they had at the previous Games. Lydia Skobilkova and Valentina Stenina, who won gold and silver, respectively, in 1960, both returned to defend their medals. 

Skobilkova was the heavy favorite to win repeat gold. She had already claimed three golds in Innsbruck, sweeping the 500m, 1000m and 1500m events. Only the 3000m was left. One more gold medal would make her the first Winter Olympian to win four individual gold medals at any Winter Games.

Han and Skobilkova were the last pair to skate. Han shocked many by not only skating well with Skobilkova, but keeping pace with her throughout the first six laps. By the end, the defending champion had gained a lead over the North Korean, but Han was close enough behind to earn silver, edging out Stenina by less than a tenth of a second. 

Han was the only North Korean Olympian to reach the podium at the Innsbruck Games, and the first athlete from either North or South Korea to win a medal at the Winter Olympics. She is also still North Korea’s highest finisher in any Winter Games. 

Since Innsbruck, North Korea has struggled to leave their mark in Winter Games. While they’ve collected 54 total medals in the Summer Olympics, they’ve won only one other Winter Olympic medal—a bronze medal earned by short track skater Hwang Ok-Sil in the 500m at the 1992 Albertville Winter Olympics—and have participated in six out of 13 Winter Games since 1964. No North Korean athletes qualified to compete at the 2014 Sochi Olympics.

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The Olympics have never been held in North Korea. South Korea hosted the 1988 Seoul Summer Olympics, which North Korea boycotted when the IOC rejected their proposal to make the Games a joint hosting between the two bordering nations. With political tensions rising around the world, North Korea’s move was praised by Cuba, Nicaragua and Ethiopia.

The two countries did march together under the Korean Unification Flag at three Olympics: the 2000 Sydney Summer Games, 2004 Athens Summer Games and 2006 Torino Winter Games. However, athletes from North and South Korea have never competed together in an Olympic sport. 

Six months out from the next Olympics, and it is still unclear whether or not North Korea will participate in the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Games. South Korea’s president Jae-In Moon has said he hopes the two can work together for the sake of the Olympic Games.

Moon has also discussed the possibility of a unified team, and said South Korea is willing to help North Korean athletes prepare for the upcoming competition.

“The position of the IOC is very clear,” he said in June. “We have already invited the DPRK (North Korea) to participate in the Winter Games in 2018. We are supporting athletes in order to assist them to qualify for the Olympic Games.” 

North Korea has yet to qualify for any event. Currently, the North Korean athletes with the best chance at competing in PyeongChang are the pairs skaters Ryom Tae-Ok and Kim Ju-Sik. They could earn one of four remaining quota spots at the last figure skating Olympic qualifier, the Nebelhorn Trophy, which will be held in Germany in late September.

There have also been discussions regarding the inclusion of North Korea in the Olympic torch relay. The suggested plan would have the torch travel through Pyongyang and other key spots of North Korea, a source told The Korea Herald, before returning to South Korea for the Opening Ceremony.    

“I think (North Korea’s Olympic attendance) would greatly contribute in realizing Olympic values, which are about bringing humanity together and promoting world peace,” said Moon in June 2017. 


Six months out: PyeongChang Olympic daily events to watch

Image Credit: Getty Images


Six months out: PyeongChang Olympic storylines

Image Credit: PyeongChang 2018


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Image Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea/USA TODAY Sports


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