6 August 2021

GROWING GREAT CHAMPIONS FROM MICRO ENVIRONMENT

GROWING GREAT CHAMPIONS FROM MICRO ENVIRONMENT

In only its second appearance at an Olympic Games the tiny Balkan nation of Kosovo has once again hit the sporting headlines. Majlinda KELMENDI (KOS) made history in Rio in 2016 by becoming her country’s first ever Olympic medallist by taking gold in the -52kg category. Last week in Tokyo Kosovo was once again on the sporting world front pages when Distria KRASNIQI (KOS) won gold in the -48kg category followed two days later by Nora GJAKOVA (KOS) who won gold in the -57kg category.

It is truly astonishing that a country of 1.8 million people has produced three Olympic gold medal winners in such a short space of time. Moreover, Kelmendi, Krasniqi and Gjakova all come from the city of Peja in Kosovo where they are trained by Driton Kuka in a club he began with his brothers. Kuka, unlike so many international coaches, gives the impression that he doesn’t know everything. He remains unassuming, approachable and, like other coaches, fiercely loyal and dedicated to his athletes. “Majlinda made the whole world turn their eyes towards Kosovo and made it possible to be accepted into the Olympic Games,” said Kuka.

2016 -52kg Olympic champion, Majlinda Kelmendi. © Gabi Juan

Kelmendi first came to the attention of the international judo community when she won gold at the junior European championships in 2009. Kelmendi went on to win the junior world champions one month later. But it was her gold medal winning performance at the 2013 world championships that made her an instant icon and inspiration for many of Kosovo’s youth. One can only speculate about the impact that Krasniqi and Gjakova will have given that their nation has accepted judo as second only to football in terms of sporting interest. 

2021 -48kg Olympic champion, Distria Krasniqi © Gabi Juan

Sandwiched in between the gold medal winning performances of Krasniqi on day one and Gjakova on day three was Kelmendi’s loss in her opening contest on day two. The long list of injuries had eventually taken its toll and, despite her best efforts, Kelmendi was drained and running on empty. Yet her presence in Tokyo, and more importantly with the team in the lead up to the Games, ensured that the spotlight and focus remained on her as the defending Olympic champion and Kosovo’s only gold medal winner. This allowed her team-mates the luxury of preparing away from the glare of the media but with the support of a vastly experienced and successful judoka and team talisman. Kelmendi’s contribution to her team is immeasurable. The same may be said for her contribution to the importance of the sport in her nation and to the nation itself.

Kosovo’s success has not come easily or without personal sacrifice for either Krasniqi or Gjakova. Krasniqi had to carve out a place for herself in the -48kg instead of the -52kg category where Kelmendi was understandably the immovable incumbent. Nevertheless Krasniqi, despite success in the higher weight category, eventually settled at -48kg. In the lead up to Tokyo, whilst most eyes were on rivals Daria BILODID (UKR) and home favourite TONAKI Funa (JPN), Krasniqi succeeded in winning both the World Masters and the European championships and arrived in Tokyo as the world number one. 

The future too looks bright with both Krasniqi and Gjakova likely to defend their titles come Paris 2024. Barring injuries, there may yet be one more role of the dice for Kelmendi. And there are others waiting in the wings too. Current European champion Akil GJAKOVA (KOS) at -73kgs and 2019 world bronze medallist at -78kg Loriana KUKA (KOS). There is also the promising 20-year old Laura FAZLIU (KOS) who won a bronze medal at the 2019 junior world championships. No doubt Driton Kuka will be unleashing the next crop of would be champions from Peja in the not too distant future.

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Olympic Games Tokyo Teams 2020

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Author: Thea Cowen