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Kosovan Athletes Training for Their First Olympic Games

Photographer Jane Stockdale captures Kosovo's Olympians as they prepare for Rio 2016.

by Joe Goodman
Nov 20 2015, 9:00pm

After the collapse of Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in 1992, the Kosovan assembly wasted no time in setting about the creation of the Kosovan Olympic Committee. Following a violent history under the former Socialist Republic, this was the ultimate act of defiance.

Sadly, tensions between the Serbs and Kosovans meant it would be 16 more years until the country began to have its independence recognized. Even then, in 2008, it would take another six years for the Olympic committee to recognize the body, and it will be yet another year before Kosovan athletes will be allowed to compete under their own national flag.

That long-awaited event will be the Olympic games held in Rio 2016, and Jane Stockdale has taken on the project of documenting the athletes as they prepare for Kosovo's first ever games. As she emphasizes, the project is a work-in-progress, but the fruits of her labor so far give a colorful look behind the scenes of an event of national significance.

I caught up with Jane to ask about her first impressions of the country and what she intends to do next.

All photos by Jane Stockdale

VICE: Hey Jane, hanging out with the Kosovan Olympic team is a pretty special privilege. How did that come about?
Jane Stockdale: A few years ago I went back to school to study International Relations part-time at Cambridge University, I found it a really eye-opening experience. Back in 2012, we were invited on a field trip to Kosovo to learn about the country. At the time, the Olympics were coming up but Kosovo wasn't allowed to compete in London 2012—many of their top athletes were forced to compete for Albania instead. Ever since then, I've been following Kosovo's journey to the Olympic Games. I wanted to document this story because I know it's such a big deal for the country.

How has this project differed from previous ones? Is sports photography something you've done much of before or was this new to you?
I shoot a lot of documentary projects and love to shoot sports projects. I did a shoot before with a Team GB sprinter and was really inspired by his philosophy and work ethic. Obviously at Olympic level you have to be technically good, but a lot of it is psychological. We often see athletes in their big moments, but I'm always interested in what goes on behind the scenes.

How do you feel the athletes are dealing with the prospect of their country's first Olympic games? What's the atmosphere like at training?
All the athletes I met are super hard-working, humble, have their heads down, and are just getting on with their jobs. Everyone's excited for Rio. This whole project has been a big collaboration [with the Kosovan Olympic Committee and the athletes] and I love collaborating with those guys. I feel totally inspired hanging out with them.

How would you sum up the Kosovan national character? What has the impact of the country's tumultuous history been on the people you met, if any?
In terms of national character, Kosovan people are super kind, friendly, and will go out of their way to help you. A lot of people think of Kosovo as a war-torn country, but the war ended in 1999. I think there's a real impression they want to move on from the past and focus on the future.

That said, I think sport and the Olympics hold a special place in the Kosovan imagination. Before and during the war, sport in Kosovo was totally suppressed. Because of that, and because Kosovan athletes have never been allowed to compete for their own country before in an Olympic Games, I think Rio 2016 is a really important event and will see the whole country get behind the national team.

What are your plans for the project looking forward?
Just as the athletes are in training for the Olympics, this project is very much a work-in-progress. Our aim is to document the Kosovan Olympic Team all the way to Rio 2016, so we've still got plenty of time yet. It's best to think of this show as Part I of a two-part project. There's much more to see yet.

Thanks Jane