The 31st Summer Olympics are due to open in Rio de Janeiro on August 5, but for some athletes they will be the first. Kosovo, which became a member of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) less than two years ago, will become the newest addition to the Olympic family.
Majlinda Kelmendi, 25, a double world judo champion, will be Kosovo’s flag bearer at the opening ceremonies, one of eight Kosovar athletes competing in Rio. For her, it all seems like a fairy tale.
“It’s such an honor for me because it’s the first time that Kosovo is going to be in the Olympic Games and it’s going to be me who’s holding the flag. I have dreamed of this for a long time and finally it is coming,” Kelmendi told CNN.
When Kelmendi won her first world title -- in Rio in 2013 -- it was a first for Kosovo, which had been recognized by the International Judo Federation the previous year.
But when she defended her crown in Russia last year, Kelmendi had to contend with more than her opponents on the mat. Before she could take on -- and defeat -- French Olympic medalist Priscilla Gneto in the finals, she also had to fight the Russian authorities.
Because of Russia’s blanket support for Serbia, Moscow does not recognize Kosovo’s independence. As a result, it was unclear until the last moment if Kelmendi would be allowed to compete as a Kosovar. Delicate negotiations took place on the eve of the event in Kazan. Only following the intervention of International Judo Federation President Marius Vizer did Kelmendi gain permission to compete under her country’s flag.
On August 5, she will be parading it in front of the whole world. Recognized by more than 110 countries, Kosovo is still not a member of the United Nations. However, the country became a full member of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in December 2014.
“When we got recognized by the IOC, it was the best thing that happened to Kosovo. Not just for sport but as a country, because now athletes and young kids can dream to be in the Olympics and represent Kosovo,” the judo champ said in the interview with CNN.
For Kosovo’s athletes, being admitted into the IOC was a huge relief. Four years ago, Kosovar shooter Urata Rama spoke to RFE/RL’s Balkan Service about her Olympic dreams. Back then, she and other Kosovar athletes still felt isolated from the rest of the sporting community.
Now Rama can focus exclusively on her results, not on whether she might be allowed to compete.
“Peace of mind, and total concentration, is most important for a shooter,” she said, speaking recently to RFE/RL’s Balkan Service. “When I started, I did not think I would make it this far, because success in this sport doesn’t come quickly.”
For others, it’s been an even longer wait.
Kelmendi’s judo coach, Driton Kuka, belongs to a generation of athletes whose dreams were wrecked by the Balkan wars of the early 1990s. He was supposed to compete for Yugoslavia at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, but Kosovo (which had been stripped of its autonomous status it had enjoyed within Yugoslavia) pulled out its competitors because of the repression of ethnic Albanians by the regime of Slobodan Milosevic.
Yugoslavia itself was eventually banned from Barcelona because of UN sanctions related to the war in Bosnia, but Kuka’s career at the time was over. He was in his early 20s.
While Kuka didn’t fulfill his Olympic dream as a fighter, he has done so as a trainer. More than 20 years after the disappointment of Barcelona, he’s now going to Rio. A second judoka on Kosovo’s Olympic team, Nora Gjakova, is also his protege.
With recent doping scandals casting a cloud over the Olympics, Kosovo’s biggest medal hope, judo champion Kelmendi, says she hopes the Kosovar team will help restore some of the founding spirit of the Olympic movement.
“I feel so good that, maybe for one or two days, I can make people from Kosovo laugh, make them happy, and maybe forget that we have so many problems here,” she says.