© Geoff Bolte

By Tara Abell – TeamUSA.org

NEW YORK — Olympic medalists Gabrielle Douglas, Jonathan Horton and Alicia Sacramone kicked off a new partnership between USA Gymnastics and the Right to Play organization at the 2013 Gymnastics Festival in Harlem.

The Olympians, and USA Gymnastics as a whole, hope the partnership can help bring athletic opportunities to inner-city kids who often don’t get the chance to play sports.

"Every kid deserves a chance to succeed in life," said Steve Penny, CEO of USA Gymnastics, "and we have a responsibility to connect with them."

In Harlem, kids from around New York City were able to participate in hands-on gymnastic activities and were also able to watch gymnastic demonstrations from U.S. champions.

"I think it’s so important to be involved with foundations like Right to Play," said Douglas, who won the all-around gold medal in addition to a team gold medal at the London 2012 Olympic Games. "It’s all about giving back. You have to give back to the people who supported you the most."

The Right to Play organization was founded in 2000 by Johann Olav Koss, a four-time Olympic gold medalist speedskater from Norway. The group’s mission is to use sport and play to educate and empower children in disadvantaged communities. Koss was inspired by a trip to Eritrea when he realized that children from war-torn countries do not have the opportunity to play sports.

"And I thought, if we are going to fundamentally change the prospect of peace, then we have to put children who are suffering from violence into programs like Right to Play," Koss said.

But the lack of opportunities for children to play is not just an international problem. Koss recognized that sports can be beneficial to inner-city kids in countries such as the United States as well, and that’s how the partnership with USA Gymnastics was born.

"Children in the United States actually have difficulty accessing programs as well," Koss said. "So when I sat down with Steve we said, how can we lower the threshold for children in inner cities? And we said, ‘Join gymnastics programs to learn life skills.’"

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