Copyright 2002 Reuters News Agency

[ February 10th 2002 ]

Face it, any program backed by hockey legend Wayne Gretzky, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, actress Angelina Jolie and Olympic skating champion Johann Olav Koss is bound to have a fairly broad appeal. Such is the hope for Olympic Aid, the athlete-driven humanitarian group dedicated to the notion that every child is entitled to the right to play.

On Saturday, Koss, Gretzky, Jolie, Annan, Bishop Desmond Tutu and others gathered for a round-table discussion to promote the program, as the Dutch government gave 5 million euros (about $4.3 million) to the project. Koss, a Norwegian who won four gold medals for speed skating in the 1992 and 1994 Olympic Games, is in charge of the eight-year-old project. In an informal news conference, he told reporters Olympic Aid was aimed at encouraging children, especially refugee children, to learn how to play.

"We just activate it to create a sports council (in refugee camps), we give them equipment and things like that," Koss said. "They start playing, and we say, there are no rules, just play... They don't want to do that, they want to create their own rules, they learn how to set rules and why it is important to set rules for instance in their own society."

The program also organizes sports festivals in conjunction with programs to vaccinate children against disease and to teach them about preventing the spread of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, he said. Sometimes, the introduction of sport into a refugee camp can encourage school attendance, Koss said: "In Angola ... in the camps, there are 30 percent more children going to school because we introduced sport into that area."

Jolie, a goodwill ambassador for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, said she has so far traveled to Sierra Leone, Tanzania, Cambodia and Pakistan. Having these experiences has made Hollywood seem "stranger and stranger to me ... it just feels very foreign," Jolie said. "I love being in my muddy boots and surrounded by people that talk about nothing but how to make the world a better place."

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