Last Friday (Feb. 9), the flag of Kosovo flew for the first time in a Winter Olympics opening ceremony, held aloft by skier Albin Tahiri. President Hashim Thaci, in attendance in Pyeongchang, spoke on Twitter of his “incredible emotions” at seeing “our Republic of #Kosovo presented in the @Olympics stadium.”
Whilst for many it will be recorded as a momentous day in Kosovo’s developing sporting history, for Qendrim Guri, it was just another work day. When the ceremony began at 11:30 Kosovar time, the former cyclist, who was presented in an Olympic stadium himself less than 18 months previously, had already been working for nearly five hours deep under the ground in a mine in Gadime.
Guri was a member of Kosovo’s debut Olympics team at the Rio games in 2016, competing in the men’s road race. He did not qualify automatically for the competition but was selected for one of the additional places offered to Kosovo by the International Olympic Committee (IOC), as he was one of Kosovo’s most respected cyclists, having won several national competitions and been named ‘cyclist of the year’ by Kosovo’s Cycling Federation on three occasions.
But since returning from Brazil in August 2016, Guri has not once got back onto the saddle of his professional bike.
Guri sustained injuries representing Kosovo both in Rio and at the 2015 European Games in Azerbaijan. The lack of state assistance with his recovery left him feeling disillusioned with cycling in Kosovo. “I was full of disappointment from this sport, because no one cared for me as a sportsman,” he says.
However, his decision to give up the sport was ultimately financial. In 2015, Guri qualified for assistance from the Kosovo Olympic Committee, with a contract guaranteeing him 500 U.S. dollars (approximately 400 euros) per month up until June 2016.
But payments rarely arrived monthly as promised, instead often being made every three months. Guri only received the final total he was owed in June 2017, 10 months after the Olympics had finished. Even at this juncture, the Ministry of Culture, Youth and Sport attempted to block the transfer of money, eventually relenting after pressure in the media.
“You cannot work for six months, for example, and get the salary in the sixth month,” Guri states. “There is a lot of cycling talent in Ferizaj but there is no support. You need your own money to finance it. If I had an average salary, I would continue with cycling, immediately. For me, even 300 euros per month would be sufficient to continue.”
His experiences have left Guri with a deeply cynical view on the state’s relationship with sport. “I know how it is when you have politicians around you,” he says. “Two or three weeks before you go to the Olympics, they call you for interviews, come to take photos but when you get back they do not respond to your phone calls. They don’t even want to know about you.”
Guri is not the only athlete to have represented Kosovo internationally that has since made a decision to move on. Armend Xhoxhaj represented Kosovo at the European Games in Baku, making a quarter final appearance in the men’s light heavyweight boxing competition.
In January 2017, Xhoxhaj announced that he was giving up on any attempt to appear at the 2020 Olympics, leaving Kosovar amateur boxing to pursue a career in professional boxing in Germany. His complaints were similar to Guri’s, citing a lack of organization and financial assistance.
A year later, in January 2018, KFF Hajvalia, who became Kosovo’s first representative in the UEFA Women’s Champions League in 2016, briefly withdrew from the Kosovo Women’s League halfway through the season due to stadium and financial issues. Rrahim Pacolli eventually provided the resources required for the team to be reinstated, and Hajvalia will attempt to defend their championship title when the season resumes in spring.
The inglorious career paths of many landmark Kosovar sportspeople paint a dispiriting picture of sports in Kosovo after 10 years of independence, especially for those athletes born and being shaped as sportsmen and sportswomen within the country.
Though Albin Tahiri became Kosovo’s first representative at the Winter Olympics, he was born, raised and trains in Slovenia — the Kosovo state’s input into him has been almost exclusively financial. “They have mountains but the infrastructure is really bad,” Tahiri told Reuters in South Korea. “The chairlifts are really old, especially, the slope is not prepared all the time.”
Tahiri’s case is not rare. Kosovo’s sporting structures are rarely producing the talent that is being showcased on the world stage following the success of recognition by international sporting organizations.
When the Kosovo football team made its debut in the FIFA World Cup qualifiers against Finland, only three of the players that started the game — Amir Rrahmani, Milot Rashica and Bernard Berisha — had ever played for a Kosovar club. All three had left the country to play abroad before their 21st birthdays.
There is, of course, a glaring exception. On Saturday (Feb. 10), the day after Tahiri’s appearance at the Winter Olympic opening ceremony, two judokas from Peja’s Ippon Judo club won two more International Judo Federation medals at the organization’s Grand Slam in Paris. Distria Krasniqi added a bronze to her impressive and growing medal collection, while Akil Gjakova won the first gold of his career, adding to a staggering tally of 136 IJF medals for the club, including Majlinda Kelmendi’s unforgettable Olympic gold.
An interview that Krasniqi’s gave to K2.0 last year revealed how this has been made possible, as she outlined a rigorous training schedule that features a minimum of two sessions every day, six days a week and strict policies on social media and free time.
It’s a schedule put in place by the club’s founder, Driton Kuka, himself an excellent judoka, who was denied a chance at international competition due to the turbulent political situation in the Balkans in the ’90s. While state representatives have also basked in the glory of the team’s success, Kuka has been outspoken on delayed payments and the misuse of his athletes.
It is also notable that Kosovo’s greatest homegrown success is in a sport that requires minimal infrastructure.
Close to a decade in the cold
But if, by and large, Kosovo’s structures are not creating or supporting athletes 10 years into the country’s independence, it is important to look at how the story of sport has unfolded in that time.
Kosovo’s Declaration of Independence in 2008 is still remembered fondly by those that run the country’s biggest sports federations. Both Eroll Salihu, general secretary at the Kosovo Football Federation (FFK) and Elvira Dushku, his counterpart at the Basketball Federation (FBK), describe it as a huge moment. “It was a symbol of equality and inclusion,” Salihu says.
However, it turned out to be something of a false dawn for Kosovar sport. “Everybody thought that during 2008 everything would start to change. That first the Olympic Committee would be recognized by the International Olympic Committee and that the federations would start to compete at an international level,” Dushku recalls. “But nothing happened, we had to wait seven years.”
Kosovo’s Olympic Committee was eventually recognized by the International Olympic Committee in December 2014, triggering a flood of recognitions for Kosovo’s sports federations, with the basketball and football federations joining FIBA and FIFA in April 2015 and May 2016 respectively.
In the years in between, the two federations both ran on an almost skeleton crew, with five or six employees working out of a couple of rooms in the communist era House of Sport in Prishtina.
These small scale operations were also reflected at club level. “You have some clubs where two or three, or even one person does everything,” Dushku says, before explaining that post-recognition the professionalization of clubs across Kosovo has been one of the federation’s key priorities. “Through education and workshops we are trying to teach people how to manage a club so it’s not just the coach who has to do everything. Clubs have to be managed to professional standards.”
This isn’t the only residual effect of the best part of a decade out in the cold. “I used to say, football has survived in Kosovo, because we cannot speak about development,” Salihu says.