August 30, 2016 | Tuesday

A Small Country Enters a Big Stage: Kosovo’s first Olympic Team at Rio 2016

Photo Source: Getty Images

By Majlinda Kelmendi

2016 Olympic Gold Medalist in Judo Representing Kosovo and 2015 European of the Year Honoree

The air in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil was warm and humid as we entered Maracanã Stadium, host of the 2016 Olympics opening ceremony, carrying the Kosovo flag. Along with 7 other teammates making up the first delegation sent to the Olympics from Kosovo, we truly felt like global citizens, part of something much bigger than ourselves. In front of us, the country of Kiribati walked with 3 athletes, having first participated in the 2004 Athens Olympics. Behind us, the Lao People’s Democratic Republic walked with 6 athletes, competing first in the 1980 Moscow Olympics. In the stands, nearly 78,000 spectators from all over the world cheered us on. We walked holding the dreams of our small country high, ready to share our story, and our talents, with the world. The next 16 days proved to be the adventure of a lifetime, yet only the beginning of many more for the future generations of Kosovo’s young athletes.

The walk onto the Olympic judo mat, with Kosovo’s flag displayed by my name, felt like a dream. This dream come true came with a very long story, however. After 17 years of training, participating in matches representing foreign countries, and even under the unassigned title of the International Judo Federation during the world championship competition in Russia, the opportunity to represent Kosovo in its first Olympic games was an experience the team will never forget. All of us arrived in Rio ready to take on the challenge that would be Kosovo’s first Olympics. Citius – Altius – Fortius (ENG Faster – Higher – Stronger), the latin Olympic motto, drove us to train harder and come together as a team to support one another. We were not there just as athletes, but we were there as young ambassadors, showing the world what Kosovo is made of.

As with most great achievements in life, we were not alone in reaching the Olympic dream. For me, the person that guided me along the way was my judoka coach, Driton Kuka. Under his mentorship, I learned not only about judo, but also about life. While other young people my age were enjoying their adolescence, I trained in the gym with him, day in and day out, perfecting my craft. He taught me to learn from my failures and to become stronger and more determined as a result. While at times his mentorship seemed strict, I knew, that is what it would take to be a champion.  Together, we were able to push boundaries and navigate challenging political situations to focus on the greater goal – to be the best and represent Kosovo to the best of our ability on the world stage.


Photo Source: Getty Images

Our Olympic story is not the traditional story of champions. It is a story of perseverance and following your heart.  A story of hard work and focus. We were not introduced to sport in gymnasiums during primary and secondary school; most of us attended school in the homes of our neighbors often without desks or books. We did not train in gyms with world class equipment, nor did we have nutritionists and doctors preparing us for the rigor of Olympic competitions. But we made up for the material items we lacked with plenty of extra heart. We have the stories of our mothers and our fathers and our sisters and brothers, trying to make a better future for the generations to come. This passion is what brought 8 young Kosovars to the Olympics – the desire to rise above and prove to the world that the future will be better than the past.

This better future is in the hands of the young generation, with boundless opportunities ahead. My hope for all the young people in Kosovo is that they never give up, that they seek out their dreams and embrace challenges as an opportunity to make them stronger. If you play by the rules and never lose sight of your goals, anything is achievable.  And who knows, you might just be Kosovo’s next Olympic gold medalist?