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Kosovar Athletes' Olympic Dreams Put On Hold

Urata Rama's steady hand and sharp eye have brought her to the top of her sport. But she won't be competing in London this summer.
Urata Rama's steady hand and sharp eye have brought her to the top of her sport. But she won't be competing in London this summer.
PRISTINA -- Twenty-five-year-old Kosovar shooter Urata Rama has been aiming for an Olympic medal since she took up the air rifle in 2004.

Despite living in a village about 60 kilometers from the capital, Pristina, that offers only the most primitive training facilities, Rama's steady hand and sharp eye have made her a top competitor in her sport.

"Rifle shooting is a sport that requires you to be calm," Rama says. "It only takes a split second to fail if you are stressed out."

But politics have thwarted Rama's Olympic dream.

Kosovo had hoped to send a team of six athletes to the London 2012 Summer Games. But the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in May rejected the country's application to participate in the July games.

Although 91 countries have recognized Kosovo, a former province of Serbia that declared its independence in 2008, it has not gained admission to the United Nations.

Malesor Gjonbalaj, an adviser to Kosovo's minister of culture, youth, and sport, says his government feels the IOC decision was arbitrary.

"The Olympic Charter says a country must be recognized by the international community. This notion can be interpreted anyway one pleases," Gjonbalaj says.

"We have asked many times to have an explanation of what it really means. The executive board of the International Olympic Committee interprets it as 'recognition by the UN.'"

Seeking Recognition

Kosovo met another IOC condition by gaining admission to five international sports federations: table tennis, weightlifting, archery, judo, and sailing.

The IOC's decision was a hard blow for Rama. "When you compare yourself to other athletes who might have the same result as you, you know that person isn't even thinking about whether or not they can go to the Olympics," she says.

"They focus only on how to get the best results and how to best represent their countries. But we in Kosovo always face two problems: isolation and how to do well," she adds. "It is disappointing."

Rama's coach, four-time Yugoslav shooting champion Ali Pilana, understands her pain. The Yugoslav Olympic Committee never named him to an Olympic squad because he refused to join the Communist Party.

The only Kosovar athlete who will compete in London is judoka Majlinda Kelmendi. But she has been forced to represent Albania.

The IOC rejected Kelmendi's bid to appear as an independent athlete because she has Albanian citizenship and had previously competed as an Albanian in international competitions that barred Kosovo.

Barriers To Competition

In contrast, Rama and her Olympic-level cousin, air-pistol shooter Lumturie Rama, have only been able to compete in competitions in neighboring Albania and Macedonia. The International Shooting Sport Federation has three times rejected Kosovo's membership applications.

Gjonbalaj says Pristina has lobbied hard to secure international athletic recognition for Kosovo. But it has been a hard road and Kosovo has met obstacles at every turn.

"We're trying to represent our athletes. But the barriers that have been imposed are often politically motivated," Gjonbalaj says. "I'm reluctant to name other countries, but I would start with Serbia."

Just days before the IOC's rejection, soccer's international governing body, FIFA, decided to allow its 208 members to play friendly matches with Kosovo if they choose.

Serbia, which does not recognize Kosovo's independence declaration, immediately protested the decision and asked for a meeting with FIFA President Sepp Blatter.

The last Kosovar to win an Olympic medal was boxer Aziz Salihu, who took bronze as a super heavyweight in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. Salihu is also bitter about the IOC decision and also criticizes the Kosovar government.

"Not participating in the Olympics this year is very bad for these youngsters. We all know that we have a lot of talent here," Salihu says. "The government should be ashamed it has not worked harder on this."

But Gjonbalaj says the government's efforts will not stop. The Kosovar Olympic Committee has submitted another application to the IOC. It will be considered at a meeting in December, long after the London torch is extinguished.

And shooter Rama is not giving up either. She says she's got her eye on a new target: the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro in 2016.

With contributions from RFE/RL Kosovo Unit Editor in Chief Arbana Vidishiqi in Kosovo and RFE/RL correspondent Robert Coalson

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