Double world judo champion Majlinda Kelmendi will carry Kosovo’s flag and its dreams of winning a gold medal in its first Olympic Games in Rio.
Serbia will lead the nations who will not be celebrating if the 25-year-old succeeds in putting Kosovo’s name on the Olympic map.
The 52 kilogramme champion leads eight Kosovo athletes at the Rio Games following its recognition by the International Olympic Committee in 2014.
Olympic fever is mounting among the 1.8 million Kosovars and with it the pressure to succeed.
President Hashim Thaci set Kelmendi’s photo, Kosovo flag and the Olympic rings logo as his Twitter account background.
“We may get gold, we may not, still we are heroes,” he tweeted in a reflection of the growing national pride.
Kelmendi and her coach Driton Kuka went into hiding ahead of Rio.
Having made her international debut in 2011, Kelmendi is unbeaten since 2013. “This girl is a machine,” said France’s Priscilla Gneto after losing the European title final to Kelmendi in April.
But Kelmendi only assured local media she wanted “to win a medal this time”.
The judo star went to the 2012 London Olympics for Albania as the IOC had not yet recognised Kosovo.
- Not just war -
Kelmendi said she chose to compete for Kosovo because she wants to show the world “it is not just a little country with a history of war. I want to show the good side, where young people do sport, show they can win and be creative.”
Kosovo declared its independence in 2008 a decade after a war in the former Serbian province between Serb forces and ethnic Albanian fighters.
More than 100 countries now recognise Kosovo as a country, but not Serbia, which opposed its membership of the IOC as well as major sporting federations such as football’s FIFA and UEFA.
More than 70 countries and territories competing at the Olympics have yet to win a medal but Kosovo “deeply hopes” for success at its first try, Kosovo Olympic Committee head Besim Hasani told AFP.
“Our adherence into the IOC has been the tip of an iceberg in the internationalisation of Kosovo’s athletes,” Hasani said. Being in Rio will be “a new chapter” for Kosovo’s sport, he added.
Musa Hajdari, an 800 metres runner, highlighted the upbeat mood of those going to Rio.
“It is a special feeling one cannot describe in words. This is an utmost point that one athlete can experience on the international arena.
“I have never lost hope that I would see this day,” added the 28-year-old, talking of the days when ethnic Albanian athletes were excluded from international sport.
Shooter Urata Rama said appearing at the Olympics was more than a dream “due to the politics that were interrupting sport activities.
“Obviously going to Olympics is the biggest dream an athlete can have. We in Kosovo now can finally enjoy and experience that,” added the 30-year-old.
Kuka -- who will coach Kelmendi and another judoka, Nora Gjakova, in Rio -- has a special reason to be happy. The six-time national champion should have taken part in the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, but Serbia blocked Kosovo.
“First ever Olympic Games for Kosovo ... Proud of my judokas who achieved Olympic quotas for our country,” he recently twitted.
Hasani estimated that Kosovo would score a “huge victory already at the very opening of the Games” when Kelmendi leads the team into the Olympic arena “in front of the eyes of three billion people around the globe seated in front of TV screens.”
“The message will be clear: Kosovo is equal to the world.
“It is a moment worth living it,” he declared.