Judo gold a watershed for Kosovo

Judoka Majlinda Kelmendi is overcome by emotion after winning gold in the women's 52kg category. Hers is the first medal won at an Olympic Games by Kosovo, which has a population of only 1.8 million.
Judoka Majlinda Kelmendi is overcome by emotion after winning gold in the women's 52kg category. Hers is the first medal won at an Olympic Games by Kosovo, which has a population of only 1.8 million.PHOTO: REUTERS

Tiny Balkan state's first Olympic medal stirs champion's emotions

Europe, the national anthem of Kosovo, has no lyrics and so as Majlinda Kelmendi stood on top of the podium in the Carioca Arena 2 yesterday, the judoka only hummed.

But no words were needed, for her tears said it all.

It was not that her gold in the women's 52kg category was unexpected - the 24-year-old had been a champion many times before.

It was just that as she looked ahead yesterday to see her flag being raised, it was "Kosovo" that was written on her back.

Her win - she beat Italy's Odette Giuffrida by yuko - represented a mammoth achievement for the small and young state: Olympic gold from a contingent of just eight, competing for the first time as Kosovars at the pinnacle of sport.

But, judging from the emotion she tried but failed to suppress, the win also signified so much more.

FORGING AN IDENTITY

It's a good thing to show everyone in the world that athletes and the young from Kosovo deserve to be the same as young people all over the world.

DRITON KUKA, coach of judo champion Majlinda Kelmendi, who was finally able to compete under her own flag after the IOC recognised Kosovo two years ago.

Said Kelmendi, who was competing in her second Olympics: "Because of politics, I couldn't represent Kosovo in 2012. Now it's possible to have my flag, my anthem.

"I felt so motivated because it was Kosovo written on my back... I wanted so badly to win."

The small Balkan nation with a population of 1.8 million declared itself independent from Serbia in 2008, but has since struggled to gain a footing internationally and in the sporting world.

Before the International Olympic Committee recognised Kosovo two years ago, most of its athletes could only compete abroad if they represented another state, as was the case for Kelmendi.

When she reached the London Olympics, it was the Albanian flag she flew.

When she was crowned world junior champion in 2009, at the 2013 European Championships and when she won the 2014 World Championships in Russia - which does not recognise Kosovo - she had no affiliation, competing simply as an athlete registered with the International Judo Federation.

Coach Driton Kuka, who has trained Kelmendi since she walked into his judo school at age eight, understands the weight of the moment because he craved it for himself too. The former multiple national champion was on course to compete for Yugoslavia at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics before the Balkan conflict ended his athletic career at just 20. So he poured himself into grooming future greats.

He said yesterday: "It's a good thing to show everyone in the world that athletes and the young from Kosovo deserve to be the same as young people all over the world.

"The most important (thing) is we did this from Kosovo. Majlinda is made in Kosovo. She trained, always, in Kosovo."

Of course, there were others who admired her talent and attempted to convince her to switch allegiances. European countries, Arab states - fortunes were promised to her if she would just turn in her Kosovo passport for another.

But Kelmendi never contemplated leaving Peja in western Kosovo, where she has lived all her life - even if the scenic, mountainous region had been trampled by war.

To her, no fortune was worth the gold that is now Kosovo's pride.

Said Kuka: "Her love for the country was stronger than the money which countries offered to her."

The judoka put it aptly yesterday: "There are no millions in the world that can make me feel how I feel today. I've lived for this, worked so hard for this, sacrificed so much for this."

Judo helped a meek child discover the "fighter" in her. Now, this fighter's gold will help a young state gain a firmer identity.

Said Kelmendi: "I've always wanted to show the world that Kosovo is not just a country that has gone through a war.

"I want to say to the young generation in Kosovo that they can be whatever they want to be. I have proven that if they want to be (an) Olympic champion, they can - even if they come from Kosovo.

"In politics, Kosovo could never do anything - to even talk, or have discussions. Through sports, I had our flag raised and our anthem heard."

If the world did not recognise Kosovo before, it sure is taking note now - of its melodious anthem, majestic in victory.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 09, 2016, with the headline 'Judo gold a watershed for Kosovo'. Print Edition | Subscribe