Kosovo, an unexpected world judo stronghold

Ismet HAJDARI
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Kosovo's Olympic champion judoka Majlinda Kelmendi added to her medal haul at this year's European Games in Minsk

The young and tiny nation of Kosovo has emerged as a world judo power, its unexpected success spearheaded by diminutive Olympic champion Majlinda Kelmendi.

Eleven years after it gained independence from Serbia and in her first summer Olympics, Kelmendi's success in Rio in 2016 enabled Kosovo and its two million people to beat its big brother Albania that has never won an Olympic medal in any sport.

Kelmendi goes in search of more gold when she competes in the world championships in Tokyo that start on Sunday.

Kosovo's judo success story was created by coach Driton "Toni" Kuka in the small town of Pec where he founded a judo club with his brothers.

A training room with a leaky roof and worn carpets did not prevent the club from producing champions -- the authorities decided only recently to finance its renovation.

"I'm sure that if there was no Toni, Kosovo would not have all these medals today, especially the Olympic gold," Kelmendi, 28, told AFP.

She became a national hero thanks to her exploits in Rio, which followed world titles in 2013 and 2014.

In the poor Balkan country, where football is the main sport, the judokas can hardly expect to be top of the list for financial aid from the authorities. They receive only 250,000 euros ($281,000) annually, Kuka said, from the government's entire sports budget of 17 million euros.

- Revenge on history -

Kelmendi, who also holds European titles and dominated the European Games in Minsk this year, is the brightest star on Kuka's team. But she is no longer alone. She now leads a group whose members aspire for their share of world titles.

Distria Krasniqi, 25, is world junior champion and Nora Gjakova, 28, won bronze at the European championships.

"In different age categories, we now have 14 judokas who have reached the highest level," said 48-year-old Kuka.

Most come from the same neighbourhood.

By creating such a powerful team Kuka is taking revenge on Kosovo's turbulent history that took a heavy toll on his own career.

In 1992, as the Barcelona Olympics approached, Kuka was the best Yugoslav judoka in the men's under 71kg division and one of the favourites for a medal.

But since 1989, the situation had been tense in Kosovo whose ethnic Albanian majority was under the yoke of the then Belgrade strongman Slobodan Milosevic.

Within a wider civic resistance movement, orchestrated by the "father of the nation" Ibrahim Rugova, ethnic Albanian athletes quit Yugoslav squads.

"My Olympic dream was broken," recalled Kuka, adding that he had beaten all the Barcelona medallists in the runup to the Games.

- Training in ruins -

At the end of the 1998-1999 war, when NATO air strikes forced Belgrade to withdraw its troops from Kosovo, Kuka founded his club at Asllan Ceshme, a poor neighbourhood in the foothills of the mountains, which the inhabitants found had been largely destroyed when they returned.

Their children were his first trainees.

"Kosovo was in ruins and children traumatised," he recalled.

Kelmendi, who lived "100 metres from the hall", was among those who joined the club, the coach recalled.

"I didn't know anything about this sport, but I was happy," Kelmendi said. "We children had nothing else to do."

Kelmendi's exploits in winning world and Olympic titles brought her compatriots into the streets to celebrate.

"We have transformed children who have suffered from the war into world champions, measuring ourselves against countries like France, Japan or Brazil that have thousands of judokas available to build their teams," Kuka said.

For Kosovo-based sports journalist Arsim Maxhera, Kelmendi "is the biggest success story in the country, not just in sport".

"There is no title that has escaped" these judokas "who all come from a single neighbourhood", he said.

Their success is contagious -- because Pec, or Peja in Albanian, now has five judo clubs, with up to 500 people in training.

The prodigies from Asllan Ceshme now want to conquer Tokyo, where the world championships will serve as a warm-up event for the 2020 Olympics.

Gjakova said he planned to go to Japan "to crown all this work with a medal".

Kuka feels his group's success has helped him to fulfil his own Olympic ambitions that were thwarted by war.

"My dream that was half-broken one day is now 100 percent achieved," he said.