During a broadcast of the World Judo Championships last summer, one of the announcers introduced Majlinda Kelmendi—ranked No. 1 in the world and the -52 kg defending world champion—in cryptic fashion.
"There are all sorts of reasons why she would want to win," the announcer said. "Of course, there are sort of obvious ones, but there are few other reasons why she would really want to win, particularly here in Chelyabinsk, Russia."
During the gold medal match, those other reasons became apparent. As Kelmendi greeted her Romanian opponent with a customary bow, both television viewers and fans in the arena noticed the three letters—IJF—on the back of her all-white judo gi. The blank scorecard next to the mat had the same letters in front of her name.
The event's Russian organizers had barred Kelmendi from wearing the name of her country, Kosovo, on her gi or displaying it anywhere else during the competition. Following the post-Cold War breakup of Yugoslavia, Kosovo split from Serbia. Two decades of armed conflict, political unrest, and United Nations intervention have followed. Today, Kosovo remains in geopolitical semi-limbo: the United States and many of its allies recognize Kosovo as an independent state, while Russia, Serbia, and other countries do not.
As such, Kelmendi had to settle for IJF, the acronym for the International Judo Federation, on her gi. And that wasn't all. After successfully defending her title in a one-sided four-minute match, Kelmendi fell on the mat and covered her teary eyes. Then she found herself on the podium, a gold medal around her neck.
Kelmendi had come to fight for Kosovo. Only Kosovo's flag did not go up. The country's national anthem, "Europe," wasn't played. Across from the podium, she could see Russian President Vladimir Putin, judo's most famous fan, a man who just a few months earlier had reiterated that Russia would stand with Serbia and never recognize Kosovo.
At that moment—feeling nameless, helpless, forced to quietly endure an attack against her national identity—Kelmendi said a silent prayer: "May I never have to go through this humiliation again."
Late last year, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) did its part to answer Kelmendi's prayer. Kosovo's National Olympic Committee received full IOC recognition, allowing it to compete in all IOC events, and more importantly, be a part of the Olympic Games as an independent nation for the first time.
Kelmendi was relieved. And ecstatic. The 22-year-old already had made a name for herself in the judo world, winning the 2009 World Junior Championships, the 2010 European junior title, three gold medals at World Cup events in Italy and Belarus, the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, and a pair of World Championships. Still, something had been missing.
"For so many years I had dreamed of playing with Kosovo on my back, to compete for Kosovo, to fight for Kosovo," Kelmendi says. "It's such a big motivation for me now that it's not just a dream anymore. It's a reality."
As the reigning world champion, Kelmendi automatically qualifies for the 2016 Rio Olympics, where she is expected to hold Kosovo's flag and lead her country's contingent during the opening ceremony's traditional March of Nations.
"For 18 years, each second, each minute, each hour, each day, each week and month, with my colleagues I was working and thinking about the moment which came on October 22, 2014, when IOC Executive Board granted provisional recognition to Kosovo Olympic Committee," said Kosovo Olympic Committee president Besim Hasani.
For a National Olympic Committee (NOC) to be recognized by the IOC, it must belong to an "independent state that's recognised by the international community." That language drove Hasani crazy. "What do they mean by international community?" he said.
The easiest way to show the IOC that Kosovo fit the criteria was UN membership. Only Kosovo has faced an ongoing hurdle in that regard—Russia has made it very clear that if Kosovo even becomes part of the UN's agenda, it will use its veto power to throw the debate out.
In the last decade, only two states—South Sudan and Montenegro—have become UN members. And supporters of Kosovo's Olympic dreams realized that getting a nod of approval from the "international community" had come to mean that a majority of UN member countries would have to accept Kosovo's independence. With Kosovo's violent and volatile history, Hasani and his colleagues knew that it would be difficult to mobilize various nations in favor of statehood.
The historic conflict over Kosovo goes back hundreds of years, with both Serbs and Albanians historically laying claim to the region. In the years that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union, a civil war broke out in Yugoslavia over Kosovo, the result of Serbian resistance to a growing Kosovar independence movement. During the civil war in the late 90s, president Slobodan Milosevic undertook a campaign of ethnic cleansing that resulted in the deaths of at least ten thousand ethnic Albanians, and the displacement of hundreds of thousands more. Kelmendi's hometown, Peje, on the Montenegrin border was decimated. In the end, Kosovo was placed under administration of the United Nations.
Kelmendi grew up in a generation fully aware that establishing its own identity was the most important first step for Kosovo and its people. Kosovo started by developing a parallel system of infrastructure: Kosovar education, police, health care systems. Plus people who could make Kosovo's presence felt internationally: its own athletes.
To that end, members of the Kosovo Olympic Committee regularly motivated the country's youth to take to the stadiums and the fields, and even the basement spaces that had been converted into ramshackle gyms. The biggest challenge was making sure they'd stick to it. With no promise of Kosovar representation in international sports, the youth had little incentive to remain committed. "Year after year the athletes would come back to compete in Kosovo events but soon they would lose motivation, and quit, blaming me and my colleagues for not doing enough about the situation," says Hasani.
Despite Hasani's best efforts, Kosovo found itself staring down the same bureaucratic bottlenecks, again and again.
Even when Kosovo officially seceded from Serbia in 2008 and declared independence, IOC president Jacques Rogge followed the UN's logic in refusing to recognise Kosovo's sovereignty. They made one final push at the time of the London Olympics. Hasani was hopeful that Kosovar athletes would finally make a mark at London, but recognition from the IOC didn't come through in time, and Kelmendi missed her first real shot at representing Kosovo. The IOC also turned down Kelmendi's request to compete as an independent athlete, despite there being precedent—four East Timor athletes had done so at the Sydney Olympics in 2000.
"Only the athletes know what it's like—they work so so hard, only to compete internationally. And to work so hard and then after four years not get a chance in the Olympics, only the athletes know how hard it is," Hasani had said at that time.
Since Kosovo's representation was doubtful, Azerbaijan tried its best to poach her for the London Olympics, promising to take care of her tournament expenses and travel. But Kelmendi eventually decided to march with the Albanian contingent. After all, she knew there was some merit in having a national identity while competing in sports. For years, wherever she traveled to compete, people would look at her training and fight gear, and ask: "IJF? What is that? Is that a country? Why do you wear that on your back?"
Now that she is well known in the world of Judo, Kelmendi wants people to see Kosovo on her back. It's the main reason why she's going to the European Games in Baku, Azerbaijan in June along with other athletes from her country. With the Olympics a year away, the European Games aren't her top priority, especially since she's in rehab for an injury. But she says she wants to be fit to go there because, for the first time, she wants to hear people say: "Look, there's the Kosovo national team."
"I never understood why politics had to be a part of everything. Don't athletes everywhere around the world deserve the same treatment and respect?" she says. "Maybe for some, Kosovo is small, it's not as powerful, it's not as beautiful as some of the other countries in Europe but for me it's the best country in the world," she says.
Kosovo, with its population of two million, loves her equally. Kelmendi is without a doubt the country's biggest sports icon. When she walks out of her home in Peje, her face stares back at her from billboards, people huddle around, and ask her to sign anything they can grab. Parents reach out to her to say: "I want my daughter to be just like you." Teachers cite her example in schools, and when she visits as a guest speaker, her neatly folded pictures come out of the kids' books.
"They're proud of me. I'm their hero," she says. Kelmendi loves the support, and loves being a role model, but she knows not to let any of it distract her. "I work hard and I do nothing else—just train, and stay home. This is my life. I give everything to be successful."
Her coach, Driton Kuka, also gave up everything so that Kelmendi could become the best judoka in the world. When Kelmendi's career needed an investment, Kuka started paying her bills. He took care of her training, her diet, her travel, and every other expense from his own pocket. He wanted to live the life that he couldn't have for himself through her achievements.
Kuka had won several medals in junior competitions in Europe when the conflict in Kosovo intensified. He quit judo to fight for Kosovo's independence, and joined the Kosovo Liberation Army. After the war, Kuka opened a dojo, a judo training school, where he would invite neighborhood kids for try outs.
His dojo was close to the street where Kelmendi spent hours running, playing, and kicking balls around. Kelmendi's sister invited her to try judo at the Toni Kuka Judo School when she was seven. At first, Kelmendi didn't like it. She didn't even understand what kind of a sport it was. Her parents thought of Kelmendi as a quiet and shy introvert. They didn't think she would take well to the sport. "Everyone thought that I would quit in a month," she says.
But once Kelmendi started training, she saw her other side. She realized her own strength. She tasted success. Kuka sent her off to Sarajevo for a competition after only a few sessions. The organizers presented her with a bronze medal, although there were only three competitors in her category. She came back home and decided that it was a beautiful thing to travel and win medals. She wanted more of that.
In the years that followed, she sacrificed the life of a regular teenager—friends, nights out, parties, boyfriends—for judo. Even when people around her were quitting because they saw no path forward, no point in competing for an unrecognized country, she and Kuka decided to stick to the dream they had for her.
"I'm a European champion, I'm a world champion. The only thing missing is the Olympic title. I'm just going to Rio to get that."