Majlinda Kelmendi made history — and Kosovo proud — last night by becoming the country’s first ever Olympic medalist. The double judo world champion defeated Italy’s Odette Giuffrida in the final of the women’s 52 kg judo competition at the Rio 2016 Summer Olympics to win the gold.
As the referee gestured towards Kelmendi to indicate victory, hundreds of thousands of Kosovars celebrated Kelmendi’s historic win. She left the mat in tears and raised her arms to the fluttering Kosovar flags in the crowd.
For the first time in history, a team of athletes is representing Kosovo as an independent state at the Summer Olympic Games. Kosovo gained membership to the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in 2014. Kelmendi previously represented Albania at the 2012 London Olympics.
“I am so happy,” the Peja born 25-year-old told the media after her victory. “To be honest, I came here for the gold medal, but it’s crazy. I am so happy for me, for my coach, for all my country. This is the first time that Kosovo is part of the Olympics and for the first time, I think gold is huge.”
“It means a lot,” Kelmendi continued. “People, especially kids, in Kosovo look at 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 they come from a small country, a poor country.”
Being ranked first in her weight division in the International Judo Federation’s World Ranking List, Kelmendi was considered one of the favorites for the gold medal from the start of the competition and qualified automatically for Rio 2016.
Starting in the second round, Kelmendi’s first bout with Evelyne Tschopp of Switzerland lasted less than half a minute before she claimed victory through ippon, throwing her opponent on her back. In the quarter-finals she defeated Cristianne Legentil of Mauritius, who had beaten Kelmendi at the 2012 London Olympics. A couple of hours later she was in the semi-finals against Japan’s Misato Nakamura. After a tight fight with no points scored, Kelmendi was awarded the victory by virtue of her opponent having picked up a penalisation.
Kelmendi has previously won two judo world championships; in Rio in 2013 and Cheyabinsk in 2014. She has added a number of titles to these successes over the last two years, including a European Cup, four Grand Prixs and the European Judo Championship in Kazan earlier this year.
She is trained by her fellow citizen of Peja, the well-known judoka Driton Kuka. Kuka’s own Olympic dream was crushed in 1992 when he was scheduled to compete for Yugoslavia at the Barcelona Olympics. However, Kosovar Albanians pulled out of the competition because of the repression of ethnic Albanians by Slobodan Milosevic’s regime. Now Kuka’s work with young judokas has placed Kosovo as one of the world leaders in judo in recent years.
Another judoka coached by Kuka with high hopes for an additional medal for Kosovo is Nora Gjakova, who makes her Olympic debut today in the women’s 57 kg category. Gjakova brought home a bronze medal from the European Games in Baku in 2015.
There are six other athletes representing Kosovo in its Olympic debut alongside Kelmendi and Gjakova. Urata Rama (shooting), Qendrim Guri (cycling) and Rita Zeqiri (swimming) have already made their debuts whilst Lum Zhaveli (swimming), Vijona Kryeziu (athletics) and Musa Hajdari (athletics) will compete later this week.