In-depth | Sports

Sport in the time of pandemic

By - 23.05.2020

How Kosovo’s sporting world is coping with COVID-19.

Each day during the past couple of months, Tirron Mamusha could be found running alone in Gjakova’s stadium. For his own health, as much as anything else. For Mamusha, it is his way of life.

He started off as a boxer, which meant regular training runs. But he soon realized that he enjoyed running as much as boxing. And besides, there seemed few future prospects in pursuing his first sport.

So nine years ago he became a middle distance and long distance runner. The 25-year-old has since won over 100 medals and trophies. “Each award has its own emotion and importance,” he says.

Tirron Mamusha was a boxer in his youth, before switching to running. Photo courtesy of TIrron Mamusha.

Mamusha also represents Kosovo internationally. In September, he was part of the national team in the Balkan Half Marathon Championships in Bosnia and Herzegovina, where he finished 10th as part of a Kosovo team that came in 3rd place overall. His 7th place in last year’s Prishtina Half Marathon — completing the course in 1 hour, 13 minutes — also meant he was the highest placed finisher not only from Kosovo, but from all of Europe, behind runners from powerhouse running countries like Kenya and Morocco.

 

But now, his season is over before it even started.

Thanks to the restrictions introduced to help combat the global COVID-19 pandemic, all of his competitions have been canceled. Mamusha was initially left to train solo for his allotted 1.5 hour time slot outdoors, although more recently, as restrictions have begun to ease slightly, he has begun training in a pair with a local footballer in Gjakova. His coach is based in Kenya and sends him weekly running plans.

Mamusha will run for the newly formed Green team this year, after running for Gërmia 555 for the last few years, but he expects securing other sponsorships to be tough: “This year will be very difficult in terms of sponsorships because, at the moment, with everything around, the world is on vacation,” he says.

Pressing pause — or postpone

When the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics were officially postponed in late March until 2021 — if not cancelled altogether — it signalled the final blow to the world of sport. At this point, almost all of the football leagues globally had either been postponed or cancelled, while other sporting championships were also being postponed or cancelled and tournaments being pushed back. 

For sports fans and athletes alike, everything changed, with no sign of when things might be back to normal.

In Kosovo, football’s Super League was postponed. The same went for the main basketball and handball leagues. Some Kosovar athletes lost their chance to go to the Olympics this summer. Others don’t have the precious sponsorship contracts they need to compete.

This in addition to the mental and physical effects of the lockdown that impact us all but can be especially difficult for elite athletes who depend on being in peak physical and mental form. 

For some, of course, the situation might be counted as a lucky break.

“Most probably there will be less money for KOK but not for athletes.”

Besim Hasani, Kosovo Olympic Committee

Kosovo’s most famous and successful athlete, Olympic gold medallist Majlinda Kelmendi, is recovering from injury, and the postponement of Tokyo 2020 gives her a better chance of being able to fully compete when, and if, the Olympics are held in 2021. “Due to many problems with injuries, on one side I’m feeling better for the postponement of the Olympic Games,” Kelmendi told the Kosovo Olympic Committee (KOK) in an interview in March.

The judokas in coach Driton Kuka’s camp in Peja have all been self-isolating together and continuing to train daily.

Besim Hasani, president of KOK, which administers all of the sports federations in Kosovo, agrees that it was necessary to postpone the Olympic games. He says the six athletes — five judokas and one wrestler — who had qualified for the upcoming Olympics, and the 10 others who are still trying to qualify, will continue to be supported financially. 

Most probably there will be less money for KOK but not for athletes,” he says. “We will decrease money from other sectors but not for athletes.”

Though to date no sponsor has withdrawn their support from KOK, Hasani says he would not be surprised if it happened, describing the likelihood as “expected.” 

“However our government has showed the readiness to support sport and culture with emergency help to the value of 5 million euros,” he says, referring to the amount announced by the government in its aid package that is due to be distributed by the Ministry of Culture, Youth and Sport to sporting and cultural organizations in Kosovo.

Elvira Dushku, secretary of the Basketball Federation of Kosovo, says that federations are still waiting to receive the financial support. 

“Even though such a decision was made two months ago, there is still nothing new in this regard,” she says. “Sports federations are waiting for this money that should be dedicated to clubs that are in an exceedingly difficult situation due to the pandemic.”

Dushku says that, to date, no sponsors have pulled out from supporting the FBK but that any additional funds they can get will support the clubs and will help them to continue to support the federation’s 11 full time employees. 

Despite the promised government assistance, Hasani still believes that many of Kosovo’s athletes, coaches and other officials will likely be left “facing salary challenges” as other avenues of financial support are diminished.

The lone athlete

Arbnore Perquku has played semi-professional basketball for 20 years. First in Peja, then Albania and Turkey and most recently back in Kosovo. 

This year, her team Prizren KB Bashkimi had already won the league cup and had only just lost for the first time in the league season — against perennial rivals Prishtina — before the pandemic shut the league down completely.

“The Federation notified the teams and then the team notified us,” Perquku says. “We heard nothing else from the team or Federation, but we had been winning and would have won the league.”

The Federation eventually announced this week that it was cancelling this year’s league. “Well, now we can’t lose at least,” she says.

Arbnore Perquku, who has been playing basketball for two decades, is trying to keep her motivation up through workout sessions with friends and teammates on Zoom. Photo courtesy of Arbnore Perquku.

Perquku is also a physical education teacher at the British School of Kosova and continues to teach online. “I wake up and go to work, but without basketball I don’t know what to do,” she says.

So she has been waiting out the pandemic by training daily, often walking throughout the city alone. “I don’t like to run unless I have a ball in my hand,” she says. 

She also does workout sessions with teammates or friends on Zoom to keep her motivation and fitness up: “Who knows if and when we’ll come back?”

Arlinda Muqa is also training every day, resting only on Sundays. The up and coming young boxer from Peja is lucky enough to be trained by her father, the famed former boxer Bekim Muqa who also owns the Fighter boxing club in Peja.

Arlinda Muqa does eight rounds a day on her custom made bag rack in her own yard. “We spent a long time building that,” she says. 

Then she moves to stretching and strengthening exercises, all overseen by her father.

Arlinda Muqa has been trying to keep in good shape throughout the lockdown to ease the return to competition when it comes. Photo courtesy of Arlinda Muqa.

Muqa has won the Kosovo women’s boxing championships twice, competing in the lightweight division, and has won silver medals in the Queens Cup in Germany and in the Polish championships. At still only 21 years old, if she manages to stay injury-free she still has a long future ahead of her.

She intends to box later this year, if there are tournaments again, but is aware that returning to competition after a sustained absence presents its own challenges for athletes.

“Lack of exercise is detrimental to athletes, where after a few breaks we can then have injuries and fatigue may be more likely to occur,” Muqa explains. “It won’t be a problem for me to get back into the same shape again because I’m keeping a good balance at home.”

Back down to earth 

For athletes with even more expensive sports that require extensive travel and logistics, the pandemic has been a disaster. 

Uta Ibrahimi, one of Kosovo’s best known female athletes became the first Kosovar and Albanian woman to reach the top of Mount Everest in May 2017. This raised her profile, not only in Kosovo, but globally.

The Alpinist’s climbing season has now been canceled. Ibrahimi’s plan this year was to climb both Annapurna in Nepal and K2 — the second highest mountain in the world, in Pakistan.

“I spent 5,000 euros on climbing permits that I hope can be used next year — right now there is no chance of climbing,” Ibrahimi says. “The shutdown happened one week before I was set to leave.”

Uta Ibrahimi was the first Kosovar and Albanian woman to scale the world’s highest peak. Photo courtesy of Uta Ibrahimi.

She had spent part of the winter training for this season at the elite Red Bull Diagnostics and Training Center near Salzburg. Now, with no climbing at all this year, she has no sponsorships. To make matters worse, her Butterfly Outdoor Adventure tour guide business, which takes tourists on excursions through Kosovo’s mountains, has had to temporarily close.

“I’ve lost 20,000 euros in cancellations this year,” she says. “So I’m not sure how I will live.”

Ibrahimi has been running daily. When the lockdown first began she says she ran two to three hours a day, alone or sometimes with friends, keeping their distance. Eventually, with the increasing restrictions, she was only able to run during her allotted period of movement. Normally, she would train each day with others through running and at crossfit.

She admits that the lack of freedom, physical movement and access to the outdoors mentally ground her down.

“It’s as much a mental issue as physical — my body just can’t stop and have no activity,” Ibrahimi says. “I’m still training like I’m going tomorrow.”

For the first couple of weeks after the shutdown she says she was continuing to pretend to herself and was still in denial of reality. 

“Every March, April and May I was away,” she says. “I have to keep up and come back to reality.” 

The post-coronavirus sports world

As part of the government’s lockdown exit plan that has already begun, phase three — provisionally scheduled to begin on June 1 — specifies that certain sports will be allowed to continue. Which sports, exactly, has not been specified. 

K2.0 attempted to contact the Ministry of Health for clarification but had received no response at the time of publishing.

In other countries, operating on their own pandemic timelines, there are slow signs of sports opening up.

Some states are now allowing individual athletics and sports with limited contact to continue. So far, most sports that have re-started — such as the German Bundesliga and South Korean K-League in football, and golf tournaments in Florida and South Korea — are continuing behind closed doors, with no spectators.

In New Zealand, where the lockdown has ended and the virus is considered to be largely contained, the men’s Super Rugby championship, the most popular sport in the country, is set to return, although there has been no announcement as to when or if the women’s rugby championship will continue. The next men’s matches are scheduled to start behind closed doors in mid-June.

The FFK has already announced that the Super League season will restart behind closed doors on June 7.

In Kosovo, with its own timeline and circumstances surrounding the epidemiological situation, similar questions about the re-starting of sporting activities have begun to be discussed.

On May 6 KOK and selected sports federations held a meeting to discuss returning to play with Minister of Culture, Youth and Sport Vlora Dumoshi. The meeting was intended to emphasize the various general needs of sports to return in full, as well as some specific requirements for each sport. KOK had previously held a virtual meeting with all sports federations looking for their perspectives.

On Monday (May 18), the Ministry of Health and National Institute of Public Health announced that they would allow training to commence for the men’s Super League for the period up until June 11, although grassroots, women’s and community level football is still on hold.

The men’s Super League training will have certain ground rules attached, including physical distancing and sanitizing measures. After June 11, the situation is set to be reviewed, but the Football Federation of Kosovo (FFK) has already announced that the Super League season will restart behind closed doors on June 7, and the first legs of the cup semifinals are set to take place on June 2 and June 3.

Secretary general of the FFK Eroll Salihu says that no decision has yet been taken for the women’s competition, but that all youth football will be postponed until at least September and all football schools will also be closed until September at the earliest. “We don’t want to risk it,” he says.

Foreign players returning to Kosovo must take a test before coming back to the country and then must quarantine, Salihu says.

Meanwhile, the Basketball Federation of Kosovo (FBK), decided on Tuesday (May 19) to cancel its five senior leagues, although it has yet to take a final decision on its 11 youth leagues. 

The FBK is also preparing a guide for clubs and players on how to return to play.

Elvira Dushku, secretary of FBK, says the Federation will consult relevant national and international authorities and follow all health guidelines before deciding on “the eventual organization of competitions during the summer or before the start of the new season.”

The FBK currently has 200 registered clubs and 2,000 players, although all foreign athletes returned to their home countries in March. 

“We had about 70 players from abroad registered at the Federation,” Duraku says. “They have already returned to their homes and their contracts have ended earlier due to the pandemic and cancellation of competitions.”

Dushku says the Federation is now reaching out to the clubs to assess and evaluate their needs. The FBK is also preparing a guide for clubs and players on how to return to play. A key recommendation, Dushku says, will be that players return to the sport outside in open spaces rather than in closed halls.

Ultimately though, everything and every decision will depend on the situation. “It’s very difficult to plan for anything right now,” Dushku says.K

Feature image courtesy of Arlinda Muqa.

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