Kosovo judoka Majlinda Kelmendi inspiring new generation to take up the sport
Kelmendi, 26, became Kosovo's first ever Olympic medalist at Rio 2016
When Majlinda Kelmendi fights, an entire nation stands still.
The 26-year-old is more than just a talented judoka – she’s Kosovo’s biggest sporting icon.
Her face adorns billboards all over her home city of Peja, where locals speak in hushed tones about their country’s first ever Olympic champion.
Her legacy is equally unmistakable, with a new generation of Kosovar stars emerging in her wake, from junior world champion Distria Krasniqi to Paris Grand Slam gold medalist Akil Gjakova.
“Through judo I became somebody,” Kelmendi told CNN ahead of Rio 2016. “I don’t do it 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.”
The three letters “KOS” on the back of Kelmendi’s judogi are more than just a label of origin – they’re a bold statement of identity for a Balkan region battling for independence.
When she carried the Kosovar flag at the Rio 2016 opening ceremony, the half-lightweight fighter also had the weight of a nation on her shoulders. She did not disappoint.
Kelmendi defeated world champion Misato Nakamura of Japan en route to a gold-medal showdown against Italy’s Odette Giuffrida. A single yuko score in the final was enough to secure her country’s first ever Olympic medal.
“It means a lot,” said Kelmendi, who broke into tears as she left the mat. “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, a poor country.”
For her coach Driton Kuka, who was instrumental in building Peja’s dojo after the war, the years of hard work had finally paid off. It was the “most beautiful day” of his life.
“She has a big fighting spirit,” Kuka told CNN. “She is always ready to give more than 100% in training.”
Fight for recognition
Just competing for Kosovo had been a victory.
The European nation of about two million people was only recognized by the International Olympic Committee in 2014, meaning Kelmendi had to be content wearing the colors of Albania at London 2012.
Courted by Azerbaijan and encouraged to “go somewhere else” by her mother to support the family, Kuka urged her not lose hope.
“It was not easy,” he admitted. “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.”