One-on-one | Sports

Albin Tahiri: I feel less nervous being the first one than being the only one

By - 09.02.2018

Kosovo’s first Winter Olympian talks about the weight of expectations, a solo struggle to qualify and the role of sport in Kosovo’s fight for recognition.

The first thing you notice about 28-year-old Albin Tahiri is his appearance as an athlete, a guy who works out more than just on a regular basis. Hair short-trimmed, muscly thighs stretching his skintight grey jeans and his bodily posture straight, upright and wrapped in a fluorescent ski sports jacket with the Kosovo blue and yellow flag and the emblem of the Kosovo Ski Federation on it.

Photo: Jorgen Samso.

The next thing you notice is that he doesn’t speak Albanian. Or at least, not that much.

“Yes, yes. Thank you, thank you,” he says in Albanian to the staff in the lobby of Prishtina’s Hotel Sirius, where K2.0 meets him for a one-on-one talk just days before he heads to South Korea to compete for Kosovo in a historic first at the 2018 Olympic Winter Games in PyeongChang.

“I know the basics of the language and I’m trying to learn,” he says as the elevator takes us up to the top floor, explaining that he understands much more than he can speak.

“It’s hard for me to speak, to pronounce and to answer back, but I think we get along somehow in the end. I feel that I’m accepted as a Kosovar. The only problem is that I don’t speak Albanian fluently. But I was born and raised in a different culture.”

Tahiri is the son of a true Yugoslav romance. In 1973 his Kosovar Albanian father met his mother in Slovenia and decided to stay. Now, 45 years later, Albin Tahiri — a Slovenian native turned Kosovar — is returning to his roots, and in doing so becoming Kosovo’s first ever Winter Olympian. He will also be Kosovo’s only athlete attending the 23rd Winter Olympics.

Photo: Michael Kappeler.

“I feel a bit more nervous, because I’m the only one. That’s the biggest challenge for me, not that I’m the first one but that I’m the only one. Because if I mess up, who will then compete?” he says.

The weight of the historic Olympic moment will be amplified by the fact that the three-week long Winter Games take place at the same time that Kosovo is celebrating a decade of independence. On top of that, on a more personal level, Albin Tahiri will also celebrate his birthday during the competitions in Korea, turning 29 years old.

The Kosovar skier, who is also a qualified dentist, will compete in all five Olympic alpine disciplines: downhill, super-G, alpine combined, slalom and giant slalom. Having already completed two official warm-ups on the Korean mountains this week, his first drop from the starting gates will come on February 11 in his favorite discipline — the downhill.

When Tahiri stepped out with the Kosovo flag in front of 35,000 spectators in the Pyeongchang Olympic Stadium and millions more watching on from around the world on Friday lunchtime, he followed in the footsteps of Majlinda Kelmendi; the Peja-based judoka first carried the Kosovo flag at an Olympics in Rio 2016, following the country’s International Olympic Committee recognition in December 2014.

But while Kelmendi famously went on to record an emotional first Olympic gold medal for Kosovo, Tahiri’s expectations are more muted. With limited support compared to the very top international skiers — he must prepare his own skis and drive to competitions in his car by himself — Tahiri is proud to have qualified automatically for the ‘Greatest Show on Earth’ and to be representing Kosovo on the world stage.

K2.0: You are about to become the first person to compete for Kosovo in the Winter Olympic Games. Do you feel the weight of expectations on you?

Albin Tahiri: Yes, I must say, I’m not sure how to explain it, but I feel a bit more nervous because I’m the only one, that is the biggest challenge for me, not that I’m the first one but that I’m the only one. Because, if I mess up who will compete then?

I try to forget that when I get on the slopes and when I’m at the start I have to focus on my run. I think our biggest goal was to be part of it, no matter what, just to be part of it and compete and we achieved that. So my goal and my expectations are already fulfilled. So no matter what result will come we are successful.

I think it’s a great honor for Kosovo, which doesn’t have any other sports besides alpine skiing in the Winter Olympics to at least have one athlete there at their first [Winter] Olympics.

Photo: GEPA pictures/ Harald Steiner.

What are your thoughts about carrying in the flag at the opening ceremony?

A lot of people have asked me that question. I’m not nervous right now, I’m just excited about it and of course I’ll be honored and proud to carry and to wear the flag. But I think the last minutes before I walk into the stadium will be the most nerve-wracking.

Having been born in Slovenia and having grown up there, when did you decide to compete for Kosovo?

It was straight away in 2008 when Kosovo declared independence. The idea of participating for Kosovo came before 2008; I was discussing it with my father. At first it was kind of a joke and we didn’t think it would seriously happen one day, but when Kosovo declared independence we said, ‘Why not?’ Also, I was contacted by the Kosovo Ski Federation and I thought, why not give it a try? There was nothing to lose.

"We have a lot of successful sportsmen and women, stars, abroad so I think the people of Kosovo appreciate everyone who came back and can help in a different kind of way."

The first reason was independence. The second reason was that we ran out of money and weren’t able to pay all the costs that come along with skiing professionally, because it’s a really expensive sport. In Slovenia it’s really difficult because there are a lot of good guys skiing and if you don’t have the support you can’t participate or compete with them. Kosovo offered me an opportunity for support and I wanted to be part of a Kosovo Olympic Team.

How have you been received here since it’s been known that you are competing for Kosovo? Do you feel that you have been accepted as a Kosovar?

I have been treated really nicely, when I came to the airport the journalists were waiting for me, I had a lunch with the prime minister and also had a coffee with him today. I had a reception with President Hashim Thaci for him to hand me the flag [for the opening ceremony]. People are really kind but they have been kind and lovely since forever. It’s really nice to be here and I have been received really well.

I’ve met some people in the streets who are asking for skiing tips and are wishing me good luck. I feel that I am accepted as a Kosovar. The only problem is that I don’t speak Albanian fluently, which some people don’t understand — how and why. But I was born and raised in a different culture. That’s my problem, but I’m trying to learn the language.

But otherwise of course they are proud of me because I’m not the only athlete who went abroad and whose relatives are from Kosovo or Albania. We have a lot of successful sportsmen and women, stars, abroad so I think the people of Kosovo appreciate everyone who came back and can help in a different kind of way.

Let’s go back to how your Olympic journey all began. How did you get into skiing in the first place?

There are a lot of skiers where I live in Slovenia, it’s a small city and the mountains are all around and also Austria — which is the biggest nation in alpine skiing — is 50 minutes away from us. So it was not a hard decision because in our region all the kids from school ski so it’s just a question of whether you will continue as an athlete or not.

I had good results immediately when I was younger so my father said: “Well, we are going to ski.” And I was for it.

Photo: GEPA pictures/ Mario Kneisl.

So there was a point when you decided to go for it?

Yes, I think it was when I was 7 years old. From 4 to 6 years old I had lessons in how to ski, but when I was 7 I got into the local club where we began to train. So I can say that I really started to train professionally from 7 years old.

It sounds as though your father — who was also a sportsperson — played a big role in encouraging you to compete.

He was an athlete, a marathon runner, and fascinated with sports and that’s also how the idea of me being an athlete came about.

He is the most important factor and reason that I started participating in competitions because he’s so competitive himself. If it weren’t for him I wouldn’t be here right now, going to the Winter Games.

"When you are alone in it by yourself it’s really difficult. I was traveling in my own car, preparing my own skis and I was actually doing the job of two or three people."

Do you remember when you put on the skis for the first time?

I have been skiing as far back as I can remember. It’s my life. I don’t know what else I would do if I would not ski. This whole journey has been special to me. I think the most special moment for me will be now, when I carry the flag at the opening ceremony.

Do you ever get to ski in Kosovo?

Yes, I have been in Brezovica to train and have seen Dragash and the conditions weren’t so good. From what I have heard, before, in the times of Yugoslavia, Brezovica was the best slope. There are actually really good slopes in Kosovo, but the infrastructure needs to be repaired.

I try to train in the area where I live; at the moment I live in Ljubljana and it is 30 minutes by car to the best ski centers in Europe. I come to Kosovo when it’s necessary to be part of the team and to exchange experiences, otherwise I’m in Europe all the time.

What does your normal training regime look like?

During the season I’m training on the slopes. I get up early, at like five in the morning, and have breakfast and take a ride to a slope and train on the slopes up until noon.

When I get home I have to prepare my skis for the next days and sometimes I do physical trainings in the evening. During the season it’s just a matter of keeping your muscles tight.

You have to do all this physical preparation during the summer season. We usually go and have some preparations at the seaside and in fitness centers but during the season it’s only skiing because it takes all your energy.

Photo: GEPA pictures/ Mario Kneisl.

In order to qualify for the Olympics, you had a busy time — how was that process for you?

Yes, I had a really busy time in the qualification period, which runs from the last season up to the 28th of January. I wanted to finish my Olympic norms last year because then this season I could focus on my training and not be chasing for the norm.

That’s why I was competing every day at different races in different disciplines. You have to do so many races to collect the points and it was really stressful. At the end of the season I was completely exhausted.

"Just by knowing me they know that we also ski here, otherwise they wouldn’t know that we even exist."

Before the World Championships in St. Moritz [Austria, in December 2017] I participated in all five disciplines during the whole 14 days, and immediately after I returned home I packed my skis and traveled for a whole month.

When you are alone in it by yourself it’s really difficult. I was traveling in my own car, preparing my own skis and I was actually doing the job of two or three people. It was really difficult but in the end I was rewarded and made enough points in all disciplines.

What are you hoping for in Pyeongchang in terms of medals?

If I get a medal I will be really happy. I would be so happy to get a medal but the chances are — I must admit — not that great, because the other guys they have so much support; they are better prepared than I am. But I will say that everything is possible, we’ll see how it goes, but my realistic goal is to get in the top 30, and we’ll see — maybe I will bring back a present!

Let’s zoom out a little. How do you think you are helping Kosovo with your sport?

I think I help them a lot; first of all I represent them, I will carry the flag there, the whole world will know about us. I have also done interviews with journalists from Japan and South Korea and that’s also a great honor.

And secondly, I have helped them with developing a sport here [in Kosovo] — if the children of Kosovo will see me at the Olympics they will cheer for me and be proud of me. I have received a lot of messages on Facebook and Twitter from fans that are saying: ‘My dream is to be doing what you are doing, it is a true honor for us and keep doing it — we are watching you and we are cheering for you.’

It’s nice to see that some people actually appreciate it and maybe some of them will get their children on the same path that I got. That’s the most important message besides showing the world who we are and where we are and so on.

Photo: Michael Kappeler.

Kosovo is about to celebrate its 10th anniversary of independence. What did Kosovo’s independence mean to you?

At the time, on the exact date [in 2008], when Kosovo declared independence, we were celebrating at home [in Ljubljana]. But I didn’t quite get it at the time and didn’t know what it would bring for me.

But, as it turned out, until now, it has been the best thing that could have happened to me because otherwise I wouldn’t have had a chance to participate in the Olympic Games for Kosovo. It means a lot to me because I saw my family and relatives suffering during the war.

For me [10 years later], I see an improvement in Kosovo. When I first got here things were messed up, and we still didn’t know how things would be. Now, I think at least there are some improvements, there is order in some way — it’s still not like in Slovenia, but I think it’s in a good way as long as they [political leaders] are doing what is recommended by the other nations.

So, with the 10th anniversary of Kosovo’s independence, do you see a role for yourself in that independence?

Yeah, I think I have my role here. I don’t know if I’m useful or helpful for the country in itself but I think I can be a role model for some young athletes — I hope so. But I think I bring a lot of new things to Kosovo in winter sports.

A lot of guys at the World Cup were asking: ‘How come Kosovo has an alpine skier?’ Just by knowing me they know that we also ski here, otherwise they wouldn’t know that we even exist.K

The Winter Olympics are being held in Pyeongchang, South Korea from Feb. 9 to 26.

This interview was conducted in English, and has been edited for length and clarity.

Feature image: Jorgen Samso.