Olympians work to ensure every child gets a chance to play

By: Karen Gram

Photograph by: Nick Procaylo, PNG, Vancouver Sun

Gold medal rower Adam Kreek feels like he won “the biggest lottery being born in Canada.”

Even though Canadian Olympians have never been awash in resources to support their dreams, Kreek knows he had it good compared to the children of Sierra Leone or Cusco, Peru, or any other impoverished or war-torn country.

He had the support of a coach who believed in him even before Kreek did. His coach used to tell him that he was an Olympian, he just didn’t know it yet.

“All it takes is one solid mentor to change the life of a child,” said Kreek. In Canada, kids can find that. “But when we travel to disadvantaged areas like Sierra Leone or Peru, kids don’t have that the opportunity to play sports, to have mentors that can influence them and drastically change the direction of their lives.”

That is why Kreek was sitting in a Surrey shopping mall Tuesday, shaking hands and waiting for his cue to strut down a fashion runway with his pal, gold medal wrestler Daniel Igali.

Kreek and Igali are ambassadors for Right to Play, an international nonprofit organization that believes every child has the right to kick a soccer ball around and to do their best in whatever sport they love.

Not just because play helps children forget their sorrows, said Igali. “Right to Play is an empowerment tool.” It gives people an avenue to discover their full potential.

Right to Play uses sport as a vehicle to improve lives, to improve health, develop life skills, and foster peace for children and communities in some of the most disadvantaged areas of the world.

It hosts “play days” and after the play, offers vaccines or other health initiatives. Because of the play time, these events attract up to 90 per cent of the people. Without the play day, only about 40 per cent of the people would show up, said Kreek.

Local teachers are trained to be coaches and get connected with local corporations and members of government.

“For the first time, you have these people in small communities who are engaged with the machinery of government, the machinery of big business and all of a sudden they have personal contacts. So when something is going wrong in a little village, they can actually go to the government and say ‘Hey could you fix the sewer line or give us some school supplies because we are running low.’

“It’s like you are teaching the fundamentals of democracy to some of these people who have been in these oppressed areas.”

Right to Play has been part of every Olympics since 1994, when Norwegian speed skater Johann Olav Koss won three golds on home turf and donated all his winner bonuses to it. Back then it was called Olympic Aid. Now, as Right to Play, it has more than 350 athlete-ambassadors from 40 countries.

Canadian speed skaters Clara Hughes and Kristina Groves are also ambassadors.

But this year, due to sponsorship disputes, Right to Play was not permitted to set up camp inside the athletes’ village where it has always had a prominent place.

“It’s unfortunate,” said Igali, who has been an ambassador since 1999. “Right to Play exalts all the virtues of the Olympics.”

He wishes it had been around when he was growing up in rural Nigeria, where he had no clean water or electricity and no opportunity to advance.

Kreek said he thinks the dispute is temporary, but the decision offended him and he didn’t mind taking a dig at the IOC.

For his fashion show appearance, he wore a Roots hoodie with Canada emblazoned across the front and Right to Play embroidered on the arm. Roots isn’t an Olympic sponsor this time, but it does sponsor Right to Play, so Kreek wore it proudly down the runway. Igali wore an HBC sweater and a Right to Play toque.

Instead of operating inside the village, RTP is making connections outside. It has a pavilion at Concord Place called World at Play featuring a play zone where visitors can experience game sessions led by staff. As well, Surrey has partnered with the group. Kreek, Igali and other athletes have visited every school in Surrey to teach the kids about their organization’s goals.

The fashion show Tuesday was one of four events through which Surrey hopes to raise $1 million. Thirty per cent of that will go to Surrey’s inner city schools and the rest will go to international sites where Right to Play is active. Many of the models for the show were members of the Semiahmoo U16 Girls Soccer Team.

“It’s not that sports will fix every problem,” said Kreek. Or even that the Olympics always lives up to its ideals. “But teaching sports teaches values so the kids are more able to cope with challenges ahead.”