Right to play

This is not a story about Oakland Athletics. It is not even a story about baseball. This is a story of three people you have probably never heard about, whose lives are interlaced in a most improbable manner and who, each one in his own way, give hope. It’s an opportunity to say thank you to those who inspire, both by selflessly giving and by giving the reason to selflessly give.

* * *

Emanuelly Peter is 12, although you would never guess him to be a day older then nine. He likes soccer, Christiano Ronaldo and bananas for dessert. Emanuelly lives in a children’s home in Moshi, small town in central Tanzania, one of the poorest countries in the world.

Marco Büchel finished his career as a professional ski racer just a few days ago. Today he is speeding down the slopes of Garmisch-Partenkirchen again, in a jersey without a number, in a race where everyone will be a winner. Marco comes from Liechtenstein, a country with the GDP per capita 284 times that of Tanzania.

Johann Olav Koss is not in Garmisch, although he would love to be. He is in Heerenveen, Netherlands, coaching Norwegian speed-skating national team, passing on the knowledge of the sport that brought him four Olympic gold medals. Aside from speed-skating, Johann Olav dedicated his life to bringing people like Emanuelly and Marco together.

 

One can say without hesitation that Tanzania is one of the most beautiful countries in the world, and anybody who greeted the rising sun on the top of Kilimanjaro or woke up in a tent in the middle of Serengeti wildness will not contradict. But Tanzania lives its numerous lives outside of the boundaries of its national parks, as well, the lives you will not find depicted on a shiny postcard, the lives that nobody envies her for.

AIDS took its toll on an already empowered country, turning more than two and a half million children into orphans. One out of every ten kids will not live to see their fifth birthday and only about a half will have a chance to finish elementary school.

Emanuelly was born and raised right in the center of it all, in a typical Moshi edifice that can be called a house only with a lot of imagination and benevolence. Wave-shaped sheeting on the top, slender wooden poles on the side and not much in between, certainly no running water or sewage, was what he called home. Then one day, after his mother lost the battle against the disease and his father the one against alcoholism, even that home ceased to be and the streets of Moshi and the daily struggle for food became a reality.

His is the story mirroring millions alike, not only stories of Moshi, not only of Tanzania, not only of Africa. All around the globe there are children deprived of their basic rights, among them – the right to play.

* * *

Balzers, a little town in the Principality of Liechtenstein, can not boast with peaks of 20,000 feet or with roaming herds of lions. Instead, it has Alps and one of the highest standards of living anywhere on Earth. Every kid can play, and little Marco was no exception. The game turned to be a sport, and the sport turned to be a profession that led to a 20-year long career as an elite skier. He lets others count his medals, podiums and victories, he is too smart to use that as the only measure of success of the years behind him. Büxi knows that he was born under a lucky star, and he is the first one who will not only recognize it but also thankfully appreciate it.

His big wish was to recognize the right moment to retire form the active competition, and the look in his eye shows that he knows that he succeeded. Retirement is not an easy task for an elite athlete, and Büchel is no exception. But he said his good-bye healthy, as one of the ten best downhill skiers in the world and he said his good bye to a sport “in which he wanted to and managed to leave a trace”. And today, he will often nod his head in gratitude, saying “I have a nice life”.

He shared the Kandahar slope with many a skiing celebrity today. The improvised parallel-slalom included, among others,  the likes of Aksel-Lund Svindal, Julia Mancuso, Emily Brydon and Rosi Mitermeier, as well as scores of kids, who are now offering any and every piece of their clothing for a cherished autograph of their skiing idols. For every team that raced today, consisting of two prominent skiers and one kid, a sponsor paid 5,000 CHF to the account of the humanitarian organization Right To Play.

* * *

Right To Play was born as a part of the Olympic Help Program in Lillehammer, 1994, during the Games that saw Johann Olav Koss win three gold medals and help raise significant funds for needy children. Olympics passed but need for help didn’t – today Right To Play and Koss as its chairman coordinate elite athletes from more than 40 countries, united under one goal – give every kid a chance to play.

It’s a lofty and, at first glance, impossible goal, but you should never underestimate top athletes when they put their minds on doing something. Already now, more than 680,000 kids participate in weekly activities that Right To Play organizes with more than 15,000 local teachers and coaches. Numerous studies show the importance of sports in early ages and its positive influence in helping kids overcome difficulties surrounding them. Koss and his athletes firmly believe in that and keep expanding their efforts, year after year.

* * *

I met Emanuelly in January in Amani Children’s Home in Moshi. I brought him soccer cleats and we kicked some. Then I watched him kick some more with his friends and I realized just how privileged I was to watch sports as it was meant to be. I doubt that I ever witnessed a purer exhibition of skill, joy and competitiveness, not in World Cup, not even in Olympics.

It was an hour of living right there and right then, sixty minutes in which only thing that existed was the ball and the desire to play with it better than the other kids did. For a moment, the troubled past and the uncertain future were nowhere to be found, buried deep under the sweat and the pride of every good pass or a fancy dribble.

* * *

Büxi is still in the middle of it all, signing one autograph after another, posing for pictures and smiling. He keeps repeating that he had everything he asked for in his life and that if his name is enough to help someone, that then there is no excuse not to do it.

Aksel-Lund agrees and adds that “it’s a shame how our lives are being dominated by negative news, how everybody just seems to talk about where the latest accident or a crime happened”. And he adds that it’s a pity, because there are so many good things going around, too. He is way above mentioning it, but he, too, realizes how none of the dozens of reporters who were covering the last race of the World Cup just hours ago stayed for the humanitarian event.

Svindal, just like Büchel, enjoys both skiing and life, and he makes no secret about it. He is someone who will make a hilarious tribute to Michael Jackson while wearing a racing outfit on the top of the glacier, but he is also a serious, eloquent leader of this generation of skiers. And as such, he knew only one answer was right when Johann Olav Koss approached him and asked for help.

Marco Büchel was sure that joining Right To Play was the right decision, too. Much more certain than he is when you ask him today what he’s going to do with all the free time coming up, something he hasn’t experienced in 20 years. He’ll do some commenting for German television. He’ll base-jump more and drive his Harley more. And he will be just a little envious of those who are preparing for the new season.

And finally he will have time to do some field work for Right Of Play. Probably in fall, he says. Probably Tanzania.

* * *

Johann Olav Koss’ start as the head of the Norwegian team went surprisingly well, considering he barely coached before. But, generally, betting on someone with five Olympic medals is not a bad idea. He already achieved an almost impossible feat – his three Lillehammer Olympic golds propelled him to becoming one of the very few Europeans who was crowned Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year. A feat that he would have deserved even had he finished dead last in each one of his races.

 

 

 


Svindal & Büchel


Emanuelly


Koss


Soccer at Amani


Right To Play charity event in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany


Bananas for dessert at Amani Children’s Home

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