LONDON, July 31, 2012 - Driton Kuka was a champion for many years: an eight-time champion; a bronze medalist at the European Championship in 1990 and the World Cup in Hungary in 1991. He was ready to represent Yugoslavia at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona when his dream was overshadowed by politics. Because of the political situation at the time, led by Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic, he withdrew from the Olympic team, like many other athletes of the former Yugoslav republics. Kuka was ready for the Olympics; he even got a Bosnian passport to fulfill his dream, but he couldn’t make it.
Now, twenty years later, he will be at the London Olympics, but not as a participant. He will be there with his juduoka, Majlinda Kelmendi, whom he has trained since she was a child.
“I didn’t make it, but I am glad that I helped someone who did. And she is from my town as well,” he said. At his private training hall in the city of Peja, about 90 kilometers west of the capital of Kosovo, you can hear only his voice over the tatami in training.
Kosovo declared independence on February 17, 2008 and has been recognized by 89 UN member states, but still does not have its National Olympic Committee recognized by the International Olympic Committee (IOC).
According to Kuka, Majlinda has had an even tougher journey than him. “Kosovo was not recognized in judo. In [the] beginning we had to take part only in some small tournaments in [the] region and only through some of my friends of judo.
“Later when we progressed…she took Albanian citizenship, but…her success allowed her to compete under the IJF flag, which [was] very interesting when we visited some countries,” he said.
"If she wins a medal, half of it would be for me! And it will be the biggest thing in my life," said Kuka.
Majlinda Kelmendi was only eight years old when war broke out in Kosovo in 1999. She started judo only after the war. After winning the national championship in Kosovo and tournaments in the region, her huge win was when she became world junior champion in 2009 in Paris, France. Later she finished ninth at the world championship in Tokyo, Japan.
As of the latest IJF rankings she is ranked sixth in the world, after she won World Cup tournaments in Rome, Minsk and Abu Dhabi. She had an offer to represent Azerbaijan at Olympics, but chose to refuse it.
Kelmendi will compete in the -52 kg judo tournament at London 2012. She is more interested in wining the medals there.
“My coach was my model to achieve something big like [the] Olympics. I know that being there is very important for my homeland, Kosovo. I would really like to compete under the Kosovo or IOC flag, but that’s not up to me. For me [it] will be more important [to] win matches in tournament and hopefully a medal,” she said.
In Prishtina, the capital of Kosovo, you can see her photo on billboards and up and down the streets. “Majlinda in Olympics” is written under her photo.
Memli Krasniqi, Minister of Culture, Youth and Sports, is aware of importance of judoka.
“Majlinda Kelmendi represents the best of Kosovo. Her direct qualification for the London 2012 Olympic Games has made us all proud. She will be our only athlete in London, but she’s not alone at home. Kosovo has many top athletes, yet most of them are still not allowed to compete internationally. We are all trying hard to break the vicious circle of isolation that has kept hostage the Kosovar sport for much too long,” he said.
“Kosovo is the youngest nation in Europe and more than half of our population is under 30 years old. Our youth is very much oriented towards sports, but the isolation and lack of opportunities outside of Kosovo discourages them from pursuing careers in any sport.
“We believe that Majlinda’s international success will help Kosovo in its struggle to raise awareness internationally that blocking our athletes from competing outside of Kosovo is basically a violation of human rights and contrary to the Olympic values. Our only goal is for our young athletes to have equal opportunities with their peers from all over the world,” said Minister Krasniqi.
Besim Hasani is president of the Kosovo Olympic Committee, which is not recognized by the IOC. He hopes to get recognition of Kosovar identity from the IOC for Majlinda.
“We have fulfilled the technical criteria of [the] IOC, after our five national Federations got the international recognition of their world bodies. We know that our new state needs to be recognized by more countries and to become [a] UN member and pass all of these problems. All we are asking is that…our athletes [not] be hostage of political issues that are getting resolved,” said Hasani.
Majlinda Kelmendi often made appearances in TV shows until last month, when she went with her trainer to a camp in the Alps in Slovenia, Italy and Austria. “Time is up. We need to get ready. In London nobody will ask about my problems, especially in my tournament. I need to [get a] positive response there not only for me, but also for my homeland.”
The IOC Executive Committee, after their recent meeting in Quebec, Canada, has refused to allow Majlinda Kelmendi to compete as Kosovar; nor as an Independent Olympic Athlete, which has happened in the past, like with East Timorese athletes in 2000 in Sydney.
This has discouraged a lot of people in Kosovo, especially Majlinda’s coach, Driton Kuka. “Unfortunately the IOC took a decision that was politically influenced by the ‘great powers.’ To be more precise, it was Russia that lobbied so much against us, and changed the IOC stance at the last minute.”
In fact, the 15-person board does not include any representative of Russia; nor Serbia, from which Kosovo declared its independence in 2008. Kosovo’s declaration has never been recognized by either country; though it has been approved by 91 member states of the United Nations, including the United States and 22 countries of the European Union.
“The refusal to let Majlinda compete under Kosovo’s flag is unexpected bad news for other Kosovo sports. Personally, she doesn’t lose anything. But we lose a lot as a newborn country.
“If we had competed under our [Kosovo] flag at the Olympics, that would have opened the door for all the sports,” said Kuka.
Kelmendi competed in London under the Albanian flag, but with Kosovo in her heart. On Sunday, she fought against Christianne Legentil of Mauritius in the last 16 of the women's 52kg category and lost the bout.