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Winter Olympics Debut A 10th-Anniversary Gift For Kosovo

Albin Tahiri of Kosovo carries the national flag during the opening ceremony of the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympic Games at the Pyeongchang Stadium on February 9.

Skier Albin Tahiri will miss Kosovo's 10th-anniversary celebrations next week -- but as the country's first winter Olympian, he thinks his 1.8 million compatriots will forgive him while he competes in the Pyeongchang Games that began on February 9.

While it has long had snow-capped mountains offering steep slopes and deep powder, Kosovo didn't exist as a country until it broke free from Serbia in 2008, nearly a decade after a NATO-led bombing campaign pushed out Serbian forces to end a brutal crackdown on ethnic Albanians during a two-year battle for independence.

Now the 28-year-old Tahiri will compete in all five alpine-ski events in South Korea, one of 115 countries that recognize Kosovo as a country.

"When I started skiing, Kosovo was not an independent country," says the Slovenian-born Tahiri, who carried Kosovo's flag into the Olympic Stadium during the opening ceremonies.

"My father always cheered for Kosovar athletes and I did it as well, so when Kosovo proclaimed independence I wanted to help by representing the country as an athlete," he adds.

Albin Tahiri trains at Jeongseon Alpine Center in Pyeongchang on February 8.
Albin Tahiri trains at Jeongseon Alpine Center in Pyeongchang on February 8.

Kosovo's inclusion in the Olympics was not always a given.

Serbia lobbied hard to block Kosovo from being recognized as a separate Olympic country and it wasn't until the International Olympic Committee granted such a status to Kosovo in late 2014 that it made its debut at the Summer Olympics two years later in Brazil, which still does not formally recognize Kosovo as an independent country.

Tahiri, who began skiing in Slovenia at the age of 7, collected enough World Cup points while studying dentistry.

Now given the chance to represent Kosovo, the birthplace of his father, Tahiri will have to compete against the world's best skiers without access to a full-time equipment manager or his coach -- who can't travel with him to South Korea because of the cost.

'Once-In-A-Lifetime Pressure'

With the lighting of the flame in Pyeongchang, Kosovo will be one of six countries competing in the Winter Olympics for the first time.

The young country officially marks its independence on February 17, midway through the Olympics, which finish eight days later.

"For me as president of the country, for the state and Kosovar society, as well as for the whole world, the participation of Kosovo for the first time in the Olympic Winter Games in [South] Korea is [big] news," Hashim Thaci, president of Kosovo, said on February 5 during a ceremony presenting the official Kosovar flag to Tahiri.

"I hope that not only the participation [of Tahiri] will make news, but that we will also have the strong news of winning a medal," Thaci added.

Thaci and the rest of the country still have the Rio Olympics fresh in their minds. That debut by Kosovo put the country on the sporting map as Majlinda Kelmendi made history by winning a gold medal in judo.

Kosovar judoka Majlinda Kelmendi shows her gold medal to fans during a welcoming ceremony in Pristina in August 2016.
Kosovar judoka Majlinda Kelmendi shows her gold medal to fans during a welcoming ceremony in Pristina in August 2016.

Kelmendi says she is proud that Kosovo will finally be represented in the Winter Olympics, and knows the pressure Tahiri faces as the hopes of a nation weigh on him as he glides down the slopes.

"I wish him all the best," Kelmendi said in a February 8 Facebook video post. "I know you have responsibility, you will also be waving the flag, but enjoy this experience to the maximum. Believe me, it's something that happens once in a lifetime, so all the best and feel proud for the country you represent," she added.

With reporting by RFE/RL's Balkan Service