RIO DE JANEIRO (AFP) – Majlinda Kelmendi won Kosovo s first ever Olympic gold medal at its maiden Games putting her fledgling country on the sporting map and sending a message of hope to its new generation.
The 25-year-old sank to her knees in tears after beating Italy s Odette Giuffrida by yuko in the women s 52kg judo final on Sunday.
Kelmendi ran to hug supporters chanting “Kosovo, Kosovo!” in the stand.
“I have always wanted to show the world that Kosovo is not just a country that has gone through war,” she said with the Kosovo flag draped around her shoulders.
Kosovo declared independence in 2008 from Serbia, whose forces fought to stop breakaway rebels in 1998-99. One of the poorest parts of Europe, it has since had its own scrap for recognition.
Every sign of statedom counts. And the Balkans war child faced so much spotlight in the months leading up to Kosovo s Olympic debut that she went into hiding with her coach to train.
Kelmendi emerged to show her pride carrying the Kosovo flag at the Olympic opening ceremony on Friday.
Her fearless determination shone through in the final. She took control from the start, pinning the 21-year-old Giuffrida quickly to score her single point yuko. Highlighting her reputation for nerves of steel, Kelmendi never gave up her slight advantage.
Japan s Misato Nakamura and Russia s Natalia Kuziutina won the bronze medals.
“This medal means a lot, not only for Kosovo s sport, but for all Kosovo as a country.
“We have survived a war. There are still kids who don t know if their parents are alive, don t have anything to eat or books to go to school. So the fact of becoming Olympic champion is just huge for all of us.”
About 100 countries have given their diplomatic stamp to Kosovo. It has been recognised by the International Olympic Committee for less than two years.
But thanks to Kelmendi the sporting credibility of the 100th country to win an Olympic gold medal will not now be disputed.
IOC president Thomas Bach presented her with the gold.
“I had so many things going on on my mind when I was on the podium. Then came Mr. Thomas Bach,” she said.
“A year ago, he came to Kosovo and said: I m here to support you and I want to see you win in Rio . Today he said: You remember that you had a dream, now you realized it. It made me very proud. It made me cry.”
Kelmendi fought for Albania at the 2012 London Games, before Kosovo had its IOC badge, and went out in the second round.
She has won two world titles since, however — including one in Rio in 2013 — and that made her favourite going into the final.
“Everyone in Kosovo has watched my combats and expected to see me win. That is why I was so motivated,” she said.
As well as representing a new country, Kelmendi is also fighting for Kosovo s young.
“All the 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, poor country.
“I just want to say to the young generation of Kosovo that they can do anything they want. Even be president of the United States.”