The European Parliament has just voted to ask the International Olympic Committee to allow Kosovan athletes to take part in the London Olympic Games. It is the latest voice calling for Kosovan atheletes to at least be free to run, jump, and swim on the world stage, even if most countries still do not recognise its statehood. However, until some key changes can be made, Kosovo’s sporting dreams will remain just that; dreams.
No-one dreams the Olympic dream more than Majlinda Kelmendi.
Iron will brought her to the very top of world judo. But at the “Ippon Judo Club” in Peja, a town in western Kosovo everyone knows it will be politics that decide whether olympic hopeful Kelmendi will be allowed to represent her native Kosovo at this year’s Olympic Games in London.
Unless the International Olympic Committee decides to recognise the country as an independent State – and follows 89 countries that have done so already – judo champion Kelmendi will be unable to fly the young Balkan nation’s flag.
Kelmendi’s coach, Driton Kuka, has already had a taste of how politics can interfere in sport: In 1992, he was due to represent Yugoslavia at the Barcelona Olympics, when the country slid into war. At the age of 19, his olympic dream was shattered…‘but you,’ he tells Majlinda, ‘you will make it.’
“We did everything necessary during training to get to the top,’ says Kuka. “I said, ‘You are ready and well prepared. Everything now depends on you and your psychological force, on your inner strength. When you are in the olympic arena if you stay mentally strong, you will win… You will win an olympic medal’.”
“I know that when I am feeling good, I am capable of beating every competitor in my category,” smiles Majlinda. “As I did already several times: I defeated repeatedly very good judoka. Well, the first fight is sometimes a little bit difficult.. But given the fact that I won already in many competitions, I am confident that when I feel good, the day of the fight, I will win.”
There is one chance for Majlinda to get a ticket for London, even without Kosovo being regognized as an independent state by the IOC. She could be invited personally by the IOC to compete under the olympic colours as an independent athlete.
Supporters cover the walls of Peja with judo graffiti. Majlinda is a local hero since winning the Junior World Championship in 2009, and becoming European Junior Champion in 2010.
Fighting adults now, October last year saw her racking up three gold medals in as many weeks,
at World Cups in Italy, Belarus and then the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix final. Today she is solidly anchored in the world’s top 5.
The stunning breakthrough of today’s 20 year-old Majlinda raised quite a stir. She also has an Albanian passport, so neighbouring Albania would like to enrol her for the Olympics, too. But that is not all.
“I got a lot of offers, among them a very good one, coming from Azerbeidjan. This would have been really good money. But I decided to stick with Kosovo, to represent Kosovo. I am probably the only Kosovo athlete officially fulfilling olympic standards, enabling me to participate,” says Majlinda. It is a pride her mother Fikrete shares:
“I am very proud of you and your medals, proud of your victories in all those competitions… I am very much proud of all this… We are always watching your successes with tears of joy in our eyes,” she says.
In the capital Pristina, Majlinda’s picture makes each Kosovar dream the olympic dream.
At the end of March Kosovo applied officially to be recognized by the International Olympic Committee. On a political level, this request is opposed by countries such as Serbia, Spain, Russia and Cyprus..
For 2012 time is running out. The very last meeting of the IOC’s executive body before this year’s summer games will take place in May, in Canada.
Will it be thumbs up or thumbs down? Besim Hasani, president of the so-far non-recognized National Olympic Committee of Kosovo, tries to stay optimistic:
“I am sure we will manage in two months to make progress on the political side and also the technical side and we will fulfill both criteria and take part in the Olympic Games,” he says.
In the Pristina sport centre we meet the Rama cousins, Urata and Lumturie. They are of an olympic standard, but given the fact that the Kosovo Shooting Sport Federation is blocked out of the International Shooting Sport Federation, once again for political reasons, their brilliant shooting results are not officially recognized.
Kosovo has already applied three times for membership of the International Shooting Sport Federation, in vain.
“This sport exists since 1922 in Kosovo. But due to the circumstances, those ladies are like birds in a cage: they can not take part in outside competitions, because we are not a member of the International Shooting Sport Federation,” says the President of the Kosovo Shooting Sport Federation Ali Pllana.
That is why Urata’s and Lumturie’s “international” experience has been limited so far to friendly competitions in neighbouring Albania and Macedonia.
The Rama top guns, today aged 24 and 25, have a smile-and-shoot approach: when the olympic target can not be hit this year, well, then it will work out later…
“Every sportsperson dreams of getting good results, and then taking part in internatonal competitions, representing their country. It’s a real motivation,” says 10m air rifle specialist Urata.
“According to the most recent information we have it looks extremely unlikely that we’ll be able to go to London. But we’re not giving up. Maybe we can take part in 2016. To go is our dream, to represent Kosovo, our country,” says 10m air pistol markswoman Lumturie.
In Mitrovica, a town in northern Kosovo, the problem is not just politics, it’s also about money. To be recognized by the International Olympic Committee a country has to posess basic sports infrastructures. That is not always the case in Kosovo today due to huge budget problems.
Sport infrastructures are often run down, underfinanced or simply do not exist. Kosovo’s top runners, Astrit and Musa, have to make a 300-kilometre round trip to train here, the only stadium around.
“We train in some of the most difficult conditions. We have to go running in the mountains, when they’re often covered with snow. Remember we are peasants, so our training facilities are non-existant, and conditions are hard. We don’t even have a stadium where we live,” says the Rogana Running club’s Astrit Kryeziu
“The biggest dream for me as for any other athlete is to participate one day in the Olympics or in any other international championship, European or international level, or even regional, with our Balkan neighbours all around,” says Astrit’s teammate Musa Hajdari.
Kosovo’s track and field federation is not recognized either. Just three sports federations are full members of their respective international bodies: table-tennis, weight-lifting and archery. But to get the Olympics ticket, Kosovo needs membership of at least five international federations.
“It’s quite difficult to get visas for some countries. There are some countries that understand our atheletes’ problems, but others make life difficult for us when obtaining visas,” says the vice president of the Kosovo Athletic Federation Driton Haliti.
The Coach at Rogana Running Club Zijadin Kryeziu agrees:
“I think our Human Rights are being trampled. Sport is a social thing that can unite people, can bring peace and love between people, and not hate.”
While Majlinda Kelmendi decided to stay in Kosovo, many other athletes chose foreign clubs to pursue their careers: Germany took in good archers and boxers. Many professional football players went to Switzerland, Italy and the UK. The list of exiled Kosovan atheletes is long.
Besim Hasani’s optimism over the longer term is more muted; indeed his vision for the future of sport in general seem bleak:
“The consequences are already very huge, because day by day we are losing a lot of clubs, we are losing a lot of athletes from the clubs and we are now in a position where only one percent of the population is active in sport.”
Kosovo’s capital Pristina has no public indoor swimming pool. When the Zeqiri family discovered their daughter Rita’s outstanding swimming talent, they had to commute daily to Macedonia’s capital Skopje. Finally, they built a private 25-metre pool in Pristina, a training facility for the Kosovo swim club STEP.
“Sport in Kosovo is nearly dead because we haven’t been able to take part in international competitions. It’s dragging our national level down, and today it would be nice to have a gesture from the international sporting bodies, supporting us, and at least giving us a chance,” says Rita’s father Agron.
Asked if the May meeting could see Kosovo’s olympic dream become real, the International Olympic Committee issued a very cautious statement, telling euronews that “This is unlikely to happen in the near future.” But today 16- year-old Rita still has some hope, at least for the 2016 games:
“My appeal to the International Olympic Committee is to accept Kosovo for the Olympic Games: please leave aside the political issues in order to help Kosovo sports: we really deserve it. We are good and it would be a help for all us sportspeople here in Kosovo,” she says.
To give Rita and Kosovo’s other children a chance to grow up with good sports facilities, and to take part one day in regional and international competitions, both Kosovo and the international community still have some problems to solve.