Field of Play: In Africa, out of my comfort zone | Sports | CBC Sports

Field of Play: In Africa, out of my comfort zone

Posted: Monday, September 16, 2013 | 08:34 PM

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Canada's Adam van Koeverden is a four-time Olympic medallist in kayaking. (Darren Whiteside /Reuters) Canada's Adam van Koeverden is a four-time Olympic medallist in kayaking. (Darren Whiteside /Reuters)

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It's a journey I've wanted to make ever since I heard about the charitable organization Right to Play. And now on the eve of a visit to Benin and Liberia, two of the poorest countries in West Africa, I admit to a tremendous feeling of anticipation but also of trepidation. 
It's a journey I've wanted to make ever since I heard about the charitable organization Right To Play.  

And now on the eve of a visit to Benin and Liberia, two of the poorest countries in West Africa, I admit to a tremendous feeling of anticipation but also of trepidation.  

What will I find there?  

How will I deal with the situation on the ground?  

I'm an emotional person. Will I be able to personally handle the experience of coming face-to-face with some of the most disadvantaged children in the world?

As a broadcaster, I know that I'm definitely venturing beyond my comfort zone. And in my effort to chase the meaning of sport through the concept of play, including its inherent value to human beings, I hope I don't disappoint myself in terms of what I can contribute once I get there.

I'm also counting on the fact there will be truths to share with others once I get back. 

Right To Play grew out of a movement known as Olympic Aid and gained international attention when Norwegian speed skater Johann Olav Koss embraced it in 1994. Koss won three gold medals and set three world records at the Lillehammer Olympics and then promptly donated his $30,000 bonus money to the cause. 

Afterwards, he challenged Norwegian sports fans to make additional contributions according to the number of medals his countrymen and women won at the home Games.

The result was that a few days later Norway, a country of just over four million people, had donated more than $18 million and Right To Play was born. Koss had more than made good on his promise to return to Eritrea, a country he had visited prior to the Olympics, with a proper soccer ball for the children to play with. 
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He came back as an accomplished athlete from the privileged world with the understanding that every child, regardless of circumstance, should be entitled, not just to survival, but also to the magic that only sport and play can provide.

Today, Koss is based in Canada and Right To Play is a global concern that touches the lives of more than one million children in Africa, South America and even the aboriginal regions of our own country. The lessons that it teaches are through sport and play, but it deals with dignity as well as the physical and emotional well-being of human beings.

The Olympic athletes are the key, the heralds of sport and its power, but they're not the only ones. The missionaries are the people who remain in the communities to continue the work once the athletic stars are long gone. It's a work in progress, to be sure, and one which may never be fully complete.

'Something beyond medals'  

On this trip, I'll be travelling with Perdita Felicien, a world champion hurdler and Adam van Koeverden, the winner of four Olympic medals in kayaking including gold at the 2004 Athens Games. 

They are amongst Canada's most celebrated high-performance athletes, each having been to the pinnacle of his or her craft, but each feels the need to be connected to sport on a different level.

"Pursuing excellence can be a lonely journey," Felicien confided. "Much of what we do can leave us isolated in a sense.
 
"I have always sought out ways to make my journey mean something, something beyond medals and results. This is an opportunity for me to see sport and play in its purest form.
 
"I hope it will be a gentle reminder that life is bigger than standing in the centre of the podium because sometimes as athletes we forget that."

For his part, van Koeverden is returning to Liberia, a country he has previously visited, and his Olympic career is ongoing. But he suggests his enlightenment continues.

"Sport has given me so much throughout my life and I'm not referring to championships and awards," he stressed. "I've learned so much through hard work and play.
 
"Access to that kind of holistic and natural learning is an absolute human right and not a privilege. If the dirt I bring home under my fingernails can help one person understand why Right to Play's mission is so critical and encourages one teacher to talk about it in class ... then I think I'll have done my job."

In the United Nations' second annual World Happiness Report, the citizens of Canada ranked sixth or extremely close to the top. Benin and Liberia are at the very bottom and the people in those places are considered to be the most sorrowful on the face of the Earth.

I guess that leads me to the reason which compels me to leave my own comfort zone. By travelling to these desperate fields of play where nothing is taken for granted, I'll have the chance to be convinced that sport really does matter in people's lives.

I hope you'll follow our trip at #RTPJourney and @RightToPlayCAN.
 
Follow Scott Russell on Twitter @SportsWkndScott and @TheFieldofPlay

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