Majlinda Kelmendi at the Olympic Games in Rio. | Photo: Markus Schreiber AP/ via Beta.

For ten years to come

Majlinda Kelmendi winning an Olympic gold in 2016 crowned Kosovo’s efforts in sports since independence, but we must do much more before we can produce other world champions.

On its tenth anniversary of statehood, Kosovo continues to deal with many open issues regarding the state and national identity.

Vetevendosje, the party with the most seats in the Assembly, as well as a segment of Kosovo’s society, contest the Kosovo flag and anthem, saying that these symbols do not represent them.

However, if there is any social group that has accepted to honor these state symbols with open arms, then it is without a doubt Kosovo’s athletes.

Thanks to Majlinda Kelmendi, Kosovo’s flag was seen in the award ceremony at the Olympics and in other ceremonies for European and global championships. As the flag of the winner of an Olympic gold medal, the Kosovo flag became a symbol known around the world.

The story of sports in Kosovo’s ten years of statehood is a story of the struggle for symbols, if we agree that before independence, sports were going through a struggle for survival.

This becomes clear when we consider that no stadiums or sports halls of international standards were built after the war, and due to the lack of a legal framework, money given to fund sports clubs was not considered sponsorship, but rather as NGO donations. Having clubs, most of which are registered as NGOs, and sports halls that are publicly-owned buildings managed by municipalities or the Kosovo Privatization Agency, AKP–which have never have specific owners–it was impossible to make strategic investments.

The blessing of the Olympic medal

Majlinda Kelmendi is the best female judoka in the world and you need to see her fight to get an idea of her might and her mental and physical stability.

But I often think, as strong as her shoulders might be, they may not sustain the weight of a whole people’s hope, which is a burden she carries in every competition she participates.

It was precisely the public, political, media, sports and psychological pressure and the lack of experience in managing the situation in big competitions that made Kelmendi fail in London’s Olympic games in 2012 when she represented Albania.

This detail needs to be noted. Realistically we cannot talk of Kosovo sports before 2014, when Kosovo was finally accepted in the International Olympic Committee, IOC, and in respective international sports federations.

Before then, there were  cases like Kelmendi, who competed for Albania, or other Kosovars who competed for European countries as they did not have the right to represent Kosovo.

In fact, when Kelmendi became world champion and when Thomas Bach was elected head of the IOC in 2013, the doors to the international arena opened for Kosovo because it was unjust, disreputable and absurd for a world champion and other athletes to be prevented from competing for their own country.

The work done by federations and the Kosovo Olympic Committee to lobby for membership was significant, but after Kosovo was accepted it was the athletes’ turn to keep the attention on Kosovo.

The Olympic games in Rio are the best evidence to prove that. By then, Majlinda had matured greatly as an athlete and person; she was fully aware of the challenge awaiting her. With the self-esteem of a champion she accepted Bach’s promise that he himself would give her the medal if she won, and in the end she obliged him to keep his word.

Kelmendi’s gold-medal win was the greatest honor Kosovo had seen in awhile: Kosovo was being mentioned in a positive tone and became the center of  the world’s attention, and once again people saw Kosovars as victims of injustice who showed the world that they are champions. Journalists were fighting to get interviews with the gold-medal Kosovar athlete who became a global sensation.

Majlinda’s gold medal is the biggest blessing that could have happened to sports in Kosovo.

The curse of the Olympic medal

For a moment, everybody was engulfed in the euphoria of success. Everyone forgot about the other Kosovar athletes who are not nearly as successful as Kelmendi.

At the time, we were not talking about how the state is neglectful and disparaging towards sports. In all these years Kosovo not only failed to produce champions, but did not even have a place to host local games.

But it was not long before the discussion on sports in Kosovo shifted from the Olympic medal to the muddy, sub-standard stadiums, freezing cold sports halls, seriously indebted sports clubs, athletes who are paid irregularly or not at all, and foolishly enthusiastic donors and charitable people who people called ‘sponsors.’

We all knew these topics, but they did not make it to the public until we won an Olympic gold medal and started to request great successes from athletes and federations that have fundamental problems.

Yet we needed to start somewhere.  In football, before competitions were conceivable, “tactical actions” needed to be made to establish a national football team, competing with Albania, Switzerland and other countries that depend on Kosovars for their own national teams.

Kosovo became part of UEFA in May 2016. Superstars from Albania and Switzerland, due to different reasons and interests, but also because of pressure from respective federations, agents, clubs, and in Albania’s case, the public opinion and the media, did not choose to play for Kosovo. Those who did deserve to be honored by everybody.

It is also clear that Albania, due to its more favorable legislation, is giving Albanian passports to Kosovar players and uses other methods to attract them to play for its national team.

This form of ‘special warfare’ will continue and Kosovo’s Football Federation will be at a disadvantage until it is consolidated and has a network of professionals who seek talented players and work with international teams.

Kosovo established its national team with the athletes that decided to play for their country of origin, and lamenting the players who chose other countries is just as senseless as chastising them publicly.

The results of football are not good, they are actually poor. But, Kosovo now knows who is willing to play for its national team and who will play for other countries, it knows its place in Europe, what to expect in competitions this year and all of those are a starting point for a successful future.

In basketball, successes and results vary greatly, but one thing is for certain: the Kosovo national team functions. The core five players usually play in European leagues and amongst the 12 team members, only one player is over 30.

Handball is constantly doing as much as it can with the budget and players it has and it is the only team sport that systematically invests in both male and female teams, a fact that deserves respect.

This statement obviously goes for the federation, which has solid funding, but the funds from the state and sponsors is insufficient. The situation in sports clubs continues to be unstable and the fact that  Kastrioti, a handball team from Ferizaj, was saved from being disqualified from competitions and permanently closed only after multiple efforts from the federation, shows that the crisis has not even spared successful clubs.

Kosovo’s ten years of statehood seem like a century if you count political events, whereas in education and health care, time seems to have stopped.

Finally, the state looks like it has understood the importance of sports. Children and youth in Kosovo can have athletes who were born and raised in the country as role models. In the end, they show their talent to Europe and the world and build a bright image for Kosovo.

Kosovo’s high number of young people means that sports have a lot of potential to develop in Kosovo; now the country must invest more in stadiums and sports halls and approve and implement a law for sponsorships.  

The sports community needs to have a clear vision of development, and then turn this vision into concrete plans or strategies. There are many challenges, but there is also a lot of potential. If nothing else, these past 10 years of sports in Kosovo have paved the way for successes in the next 10 years.

Leart Hoxha is the moderator of the television debate Click and a sports aficionado.

The opinions expressed in the opinion section are those of the authors only and do not necessarily reflect the views of BIRN.

16 February 2018 - 10:23

Leart Hoxha

16/02/2018 - 10:23



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