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World-class good guy hits us up

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He's been in and out of town more often the past few weeks than a temperature inversion, earnestly zipping around in a business suit that belies his calling card as a world-class athlete who would be hard-pressed to pay for his own meals in his native Norway.

It was eight years ago, in the Winter Olympics of 1994 in Lillehammer, Norway, that speedskater Johann Olav Koss turned heads and kept turning them as he won long track events at 1,500, 5,000 and 10,000 meters, all in world record time.

Flushed by the thrill of Koss's victory, the nation listened as he donated $30,000 from his gold medal bonus to a new charity called Olympic Aid — and challenged every Norwegian to do likewise, if not on such a grand scale. How about a dollar for every gold medal won by Norway? he asked. Norway won 10 gold medals and a nation of 4 1/2 million donated $18 million to Olympic Aid. You do the math. "It was about right," says Johann.

It's all about right, isn't it? Right in a world of too much wrong. Johann Koss is one of the good guys, and his charity, Olympic Aid, is one of the good things. Eight years later Johann still has his hand out, aimed at our hearts, and Olympic Aid is still rising like a biennial good deed.

The Atlanta Games in 1996 raised $13 million for Olympic Aid and the Sydney Games of 2000 another $5 million. Nagano in 1998 raised money for charity through its Olympic Harmony Fund, a Japanese version of Olympic Aid, although Johann wasn't heavily involved as the Japanese preferred to do things their way.

Salt Lake 2002, however, has fully embraced Johann Koss and his quest to, as he put it in a recent fund-raising cruise through town, "create hope and end hate."

Call him the anti-terrorist.

Where does the money go? Not into Johann's pocket. A fortunate son of privilege — both parents are doctors, as is Johann — the founder and CEO of Olympic Aid remains strictly a volunteer, drawing no salary.

His pay is of a longer-lasting currency, deposited by the kids in that Angolan refugee camp who upped their school attendance 30 percent after Olympic Aid came to camp with medical supplies, immunization needles, boxes of food, sporting equipment and Olympic athletes to teach them how to use it. Or by the grateful doctors in Sarajevo with a new hospital to operate in. Or by the students and staff using the thousand new elementary schools built by Olympic Aid in the east African nation of Eritrea.

As you might have guessed, Olympic Aid's soft spot is orphaned children in war-torn countries. "The most unfortunate people in the world," Johann Koss calls them.

He will go to the ends of the Earth for these kids, holding out his hand, asking Olympians and Olympic sites for money and generally making a world-class pest of himself.

His goal for us in Salt Lake 2002, by the way, is $5 million — and thanks for asking. He's recruited Mitt Romney's charity-champion wife, Ann, to be his co-chairwoman, along with local developer Kem Gardner. For the next month, they will tirelessly hit us up.

The best speedskater of 1994 hasn't slowed down a bit.

"It didn't end with that race," smiles Johann Olav Koss, and about a million of the world's kids without a mom and dad will drink to that.

Lee Benson's column runs Sunday, Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Please send e-mail to benson@desnews.com and faxes to 801-237-2527.