As good as gold

MARK KEAST -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 10:01 AM ET

It's not often office staff celebrate a phone crash, or a website meltdown, but this has been a good week in the Queen St. fundraising offices of Right To Play.

Ever since Canadian speed skating gold medallist Clara Hughes announced after her win in the 5,000m last Saturday that she was donating $10,000 of her own money to the athlete-driven, international humanitarian organization, and after media members such as the CBC's Brian Williams talked about what she had done over the air, Canadians have donated in excess of $172,000. An initial fundraising goal of $40,000 now has been raised to $250,000.

The technological hiccups this past week were just that, maybe a half an hour in length, more than enough time to get Right To Play's director of Canada Warren Spires smiling.

A lot of the credit for the fundraising comes down to the likability of the 33-year-old Hughes, a Winter Olympian and a Summer Olympian in cycling with the big grin who impressed many with a steely-guts performance in the gruelling 5,000, edging teammate and Turin superstar Cindy Klassen in the process.

Hughes is one of the superstars of Canadian amateur sport, someone whose achievements have been too underappreciated, especially in pro-sports markets like Toronto. This is someone, remember, who has won medals in both Olympics, five in total now.

She packed in the cycling in 2003 -- with two bronze medals in Olympic cycling on the mantle -- to focus on speed skating in the 2006 Turin Games, where she would be skating the race of her life, as she called it on her website. Last weekend, with many Canadians locked in to follow Klassen's attempt at what became a fifth Olympic medal, was just that. She'll hang up the skates after Vancouver 2010.

Hughes is in Heerenveen, Netherlands this weekend, competing in the International Skating Union's World Cup event, and told The Sun via e-mail that she has been able to put money aside over the years despite the relatively meagre stipends amateur athletes have typically lived under.

"I feel like I have everything I need in my life to thrive in what I do and be comfortable, and I really felt that this money could help others," she said. Handing over $10,000 is a tall order, despite Canadian Olympic Committee talk that Canadian amateur athletes may soon be paid bonuses for the Olympic medals they win.

Right To Play -- launched in 1992 as Olympic Aid by the Lillehammer Olympic Organizing Committee, with the Norwegian flash, Johann Olav Koss, the four-time Winter gold medallist in speed skating, as its first lead athlete ambassador -- involves Olympic and pro athletes from around the world, as well as a hearty core of volunteers.

The program targets the more disadvantaged areas of the globe, implementing sports programs for young people there, in turn improving their social and physical well-being, building their self-esteem, giving them leadership skills, helping break down prejudices and barriers instilled by adults, bringing populations in those communities together.

Many of these refugee populations have basic needs that are being met by the United Nations, but not much more. Food, water, some strips of clothing, a respite from the wars that surround many of them (the rebel war in northern Uganda has been ongoing for 18 years, for example), but not much of a comfort.

"People are dying from diseases that can be prevented," Spires said, having spent a week last year in a Uganda refugee camp.

For young people, there are few activities. There are no role models. A volunteer who just returned from Kampala, Uganda, where she worked in an Internal Displaced Persons camp, said she spent a lot of her time working with children with disabilities, in places where these children get even less attention, and often live in seclusion.

"Parents are ashamed of them," said Kim Barry, 27, of Oshawa. "They have no opportunities."

Barry helped set up sports programs for them, soccer balls with bells inside them, badminton for kids with hearing disabilities, even word games on braille cards so kids could learn lessons about health. They'd find a flat surface, get the kids to smooth out the ground even more, and set up basketball nets. "They loved it," she said.

A big part of Right To Play is training people there, turning them into coaches, creating sustainable local ownership of these programs. Another component is to use sport to help educate people about health issues like HIV awareness and the importance of vaccinations. The prevalence of HIV is far higher in these camps.

With the international headquarters in Toronto, Right To Play, under Koss' stewardship as president, is in 20 countries, with 40 projects going on, and has reached 500,000 kids.

Spires said they raised $15 million in capital worldwide in 2005 which goes toward the implementation, on the ground, of these sports programs, introducing kids in Angola, Ethiopia, Uganda, Thailand, Pakistan, Israel and the Palestinian Territories to soccer, volleyball, netball, and basketball. The goal for 2006 is $25 million.

Sports as a means of social mobilization, as someone described it. Many of the program's volunteers -- more than half -- are Canadian.

Back in the Queen St. office, Spires looks on at a wall full of newspaper clips on Hughes.

"Until all this started we were just plugging away," he said. "Not many people noticed what we were doing. Phone calls weren't being returned. Now the phone is ringing off the hook."

Said Hughes: "I hope to be involved with Right To Play for the rest of my life. In some ways this feels more important than the gold medal to me."

Those interested in donating can visit www.righttoplay.com/clarahughes.


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