RIO DE JANEIRO: Majlinda Kelmendi won Kosovo’s first ever Olympic gold medal at its maiden Games on Sunday and the judoka will be thanked for a very long time for helping put her country’s name on the international map.
The 25-year-old sank to her knees in tears after beating Italy’s Odette Giuffrida by yuko in the women’s 52kg final.
She ran to hug a small group of supporters chanting “Kosovo, Kosovo!”
“I have always wanted to show the world that Kosovo is not just a country that has gone through war,” she said with the Kosovo flag draped around her shoulders.
Kosovo declared its independence from Serbia in 2008 whose forces fought to stop breakaway rebels in 1998-99 — and has since had its own scrap for recognition.
Every sign of statedom counts. And the Balkans war child faced so much spotlight in the months leading up to Kosovo’s Olympic debut that she went into hiding with her coach to train.
She emerged to show her pride carrying the Kosovo flag at the Olympic opening ceremony on Friday.
“This medal means a lot, not only for Kosovo’s sport, but for all Kosovo as a country.
“We have survived a war. There are still kids who don’t know if their parents are alive, don’t have anything to eat or books to go to school. So the fact of becoming Olympic champion is just huge for all of us.”
About 100 countries have given their diplomatic stamp to Kosovo. It has been recognised by the International Olympic Committee for less than two years.
But thanks to Kelmendi the sporting credibility of the 100th country to win an Olympic gold medal will not now be disputed.
IOC president Thomas Bach presented her with the gold.
“I had so many things going on on my mind when I was on the podium. Then came Mr. Thomas Bach,” she said.
“A year ago, he came to Kosovo and said: ‘I’m here to support you and I want to see you win in Rio’. Today he said: ‘You remember that you had a dream, now you realized it.’ It made me very proud.”
Kelmendi took control of the final from the start, pinning the 21-year-old Giuffrida quickly to score her single point yuko. Highlighting her reputation for nerves of steel, Kelmendi never gave up her slight advantage.
“Everyone in Kosovo has watched my combats and expected to see me win. That is why I was to motivated,” she said.
Japan’s Misato Nakamura and Russia’s Natalia Kuziutina won the bronze medals.
Kelmendi fought for Albania at the 2012 London Games, before Kosovo had its IOC badge, and went out in the second round.
She has won two world titles since, however — including one in Rio in 2013 and that made her favourite going into the final.
As well as representing a new country, Kelmendi is also fighting for Kosovo’s new generation.
“All the people, especially kids, in Kosovo look to me as a hero. I just proved to them that even after the war, even after we survived a war, if they want something they can have it.
“If they want to be Olympic champions, they can be. Even if we come from a small country, poor country.
“I just want to say to the young generation of Kosovo that they can do anything they want.”