When Majlinda Kelmendi carries her country’s flag at the 2016 Olympics, her powerful fighter’s shoulders will also bear the weight of expectation of a nation finally gaining recognition after being ripped apart by war.
The back of her judo outfit will display three letters that represent more than just a label of her origin – but a bold statement of identity for a Balkan region battling for independence.
“Not just for sport but as a country, because now athletes and young kids can dream to be in the Olympics and represent Kosovo.”
Kelmendi fought at the London 2012 Olympics under the Albanian flag. That time her judogi said “ALB” – next year it will say “KOS” as Kosovo becomes the latest part of the former Yugoslavia to compete at the sporting pinnacle in its own right.
“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 is holding the flag,” says the 24-year-old.
“I have dreamed of this for a long time and finally it is coming.”
When Kelmendi won her first world title in Rio de Janeiro 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 52 kg crown in Russia last year, Kelmendi was forced to compete under “IJF” acronym because the host nation – which supports Serbia’s claims to Kosovo territory – refused to recognize her homeland.
Her victory was bold defiance at a championships attended by Russian leader Vladimir Putin – himself a noted black-belt judoka.
“We felt so bad but we were motivated to get a good result, and we did it – Majlinda become double world champion exactly in Russia!” says her coach and mentor Driton Kuka.
His pride in her achievements is magnified by his own disappointment of having his promising judo career cut short by the Balkan conflicts.
Kuka, a six-time national champion, had been poised to compete for Yugoslavia at the 1992 Olympics, but Kosovo pulled out of the federation due to Serbia’s attacks on the region’s Albanian population.
“My career was finished at 20,” he recalls. “I was the best in my category.”
Yugoslavia would subsequently be banned from the Barcelona Games under United Nations sanctions, while Kelmendi’s home town of Peja would be decimated during the Kosovo War of 1999.
“A huge number of houses were razed to the ground, many refugees were made there,” says James Montague, a Balkans-based British journalist and author who has written about Kosovo’s attempts to gain international recognition in sports.
Kuka’s family was instrumental in helping to revive Peja, set in a picturesque mountain region near the western border with Montenegro.
The focal point was the dojo they built – it became a focal point for the local youth, an outlet for their energy.
“Me and my two older brothers, we all train judo – we are really in love with this sport,” Kuka says. “We wanted to achieve results to make our new country proud.”
In 2000, aged eight, Kelmendi visited the dojo with her sister and a friend.
“I didn’t understand what was going on but then after three weeks of training we went to a competition in Sarajevo,” she says.
“I saw that a lot of girls do this sport and I made a lot of friends, and I think it was the moment I started to love judo.
“My coach said I am going to be in Olympics. Everybody said he’s dreaming too much, but he’s the kind of person who works very hard and there is no problem which has no solution.”
Kuka saw a young girl with the qualities needed to succeed in the sport, which was devised in the late 1800s in Japan.
“She has a big fighting spirit – she is always ready to give more than 100% in training,” he says.
Montague believes Kuka hopes that Kelmendi can achieve what he was denied.
“It’s obviously very painful that he never got to compete at the Olympics and win a medal,” the writer explains.
“He said to me, ‘It’ll all be worth it if I can pour myself and my own dreams into her.’”
Kelmendi says judo brings out a different side in her – a focused ferocity that overwhelms her opponents with assassin-like efficiency.
“People say, ‘I just can’t imagine you doing judo or being so aggressive or winning something – you are so quiet,’” she says.
“Through judo I became somebody. And it’s good that I don’t do judo because of money, I don’t do it because I wanted to get famous. I do judo because I feel it, I love it – it makes me feel good, makes me feel special.”
Nonetheless, judo also brought personal conflict. With Kosovo yet to be recognized for international competition, the promising Kelmendi – a junior world champion in 2009 – was courted by tempting offers from other countries.
Feeling neglected by her own government, she seriously considered switching allegiance.
“There was a moment when I said, ‘Why am I staying here?’ when I felt like nobody was taking my career seriously,” she says.
“At the same time my mum was telling me, ‘Go somewhere else, don’t stay here,’ and my coach was saying, ‘Hold on, we will find a solution, it’s not always going to be like this.’”
Kuka had been funding Kelmendi’s career, along with those of his other proteges.
“It was not easy. Majlinda’s family live in hard financial conditions – they put pressure on her to go because a lot of good money offers came from many countries,” he confirms.
“I said to her if you go, I won’t come with you and I will not support you if you go somewhere else.”
Kosovo was accepted as a full member nation of the IJF in April 2012, but Olympic recognition did not come until December 2014.
Montague says it’s “almost impossible” for Kosovo to be recognized by the U.N. because Russia holds a veto on its Security Council.
But with Kelmendi carrying the Kosovo flag at high-profile events such as this month’s European Games in Baku – where she did not compete because of injury – and Rio 2016, he says her success will boost the region’s hope of securing widely-accepted independence.
“For her to win a gold medal and stand on that podium will send a massive message to the world,” Montague says.
“When I went to Kosovo in December when the IOC ratified the original decision to recognize it, I met the deputy foreign minister – he said this was the most important day in Kosovo’s history since the unilateral declaration of independence in 2008.”
For Kelmendi, who will return to competition and defend her title at August’s world championships in Kazakhstan, another success in Brazil will mean much more than just a medal.
“I feel so good that I can maybe, for one or two days, make people from Kosovo laugh, make them happy, and maybe forget that we have so many problems here.”
For Kuka, the trip to Rio will mean all his years of hard work have finally paid off.
“It will be the most beautiful day in my life,” he concludes.