Much of Kosovo’s best sporting talent has left the country to make their fortunes abroad. However, judo is bucking the trend and bringing home gold medals.

Kosovo doesn't have a long track record in international Olympic competitions. The games in Tokyo are its second. Yet the small Balkan nation is making headlines after winning two back-to-back gold medals in judo.

The achievement of Kosovo's women athletes may not put it at the top of the medals table where China, Russia and the United States vie for supremacy. But for Kosovo, it puts the country — which only became independent in 2008 and was accepted by the International Olympic Committee in 2014 — on the map.

In fact, this country of 1.8 million people has three medals in its Olympic history, all gold, all in judo - a Japanese martial art.

To put this achievement in some context, India, a nation of more than 1.3 billion people, which has been competing in the Summer Olympics for 120 years, has only nine gold medals in its history.

"I think the victory in the Olympics is important not only for our international image but also in motivating our youth in Kosovo," says Besa Ismaili, a Professor of English, turned politician brimming with pride about what "our girls achieved."

Distria Krasniqi, 25 and Nora Gjakova, 28, won their gold medals in the 48kg and the 57kg categories, respectively. Both women and Majlinda Kelmendi, who won the gold medal in judo at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics, are from the city of Peja in Kosovo.

This year's Olympic victory is an important message for our youth, says Ismaili speaking to TRT World on the phone from Pristina, that by "working hard and staying in Kosovo, success is attainable and rewarding."

Kelmendi, 30, became an inspiration for many of Kosovo's youth when she started winning international competitions. Her breakthrough at the Rio Olympics has paved the way for other young women to build on her success.

The country's judo powerhouse status also had very humble beginnings. One of the first judo clubs in Peja, where all three women are from, was created by coach Driton Kuka and his brothers.

All of Kosovo's gold medalists have emerged from his club. And in a country that is obsessed with football, judo has forced its way into the national consciousness.

Now there are more than five clubs in the city, and hundreds of young men and women train in a bid to achieve international success.

It's also bringing much-needed investment in the city as money is pumped to institutionalise this unlikely regional hub for judo.

And in a country that suffers from a high youth unemployment rate approaching 50 percent, judo offers a measure of hope.

Kosovo's northern neighbour, Serbia, hasn't made things easy either. It has worked regionally and internationally to isolate Pristina after the territory broke away following Belgrade's attempt to cleanse the region of its ethnic Albanian community.

Kosovo's success against these odds makes the achievement all the more remarkable.

So far, Kosovo is recognised by more than 100 countries, including major international powers like the US, UK, France and Turkey.

'Political victory'

Against the backdrop of Serbian attempts to bully the small country into irrelevance, Kosovo's athletes have remained unbowed.

"For Kosovo, Olympic golds are also a political victory," said Ismaili adding that "we have been working to shape our international identity as a young nation. We had our flag raised in the Olympics, not once but twice, and millions around the world saw it."

"Kosovo might be small, but it can pack a punch on the world stage," added Ismaili.

Radio Television of Serbia (RTS), the country's public broadcaster, quickly cut its coverage of judo once Nora Gjakova was about to play in the finals.

Its Editor-in-chief, Olivera Kovacevic, denied claims that it was because Kosovo, which broke away after the 1998-99 war, was playing.

Kovacevic added that the broadcaster later announced the victory of the "self-proclaimed Republic of Kosovo."

Social media users, however, decried the "North Korean style censorship."

But for many of Kosovo's ethnic Albanians, the victory has lifted their spirits as the country has battled Covid-19 and political upheaval over the last two years. Like the country's emergence, it's also the result of more than a decade of hard work in the local community.

'An indigenous achievement'

Kosovo's growing name in the sporting world and the judo community is not by chance and carries broader lessons from the country.

"This is an indigenous achievement," says Ismaili.

Yes, the country doesn't have a shortage of talent that has its mark on the international stage. Musicians like Rita Ora or Dua Lipa and international footballers like Granit Xhaka or Xherdan Shaqiri have become household names worldwide and in Kosovo.

But, says Ismaili, what our gold medalists did at the "Olympics is something that was harnessed, nurtured and flourished locally. Our youth don't always need to go abroad to become the best in the world."

Source: TRT World