Majlinda Kelmendi's dream of winning gold at London 2012 depends on the IOC formally recognising Kosovo as an independent nation
By Mark Lowen
BBC News, Kosovo
The first thing that strikes you is her modesty.
Unimposing and mild-mannered, Majlinda Kelmendi shows none of the bravado that might be expected from a junior world champion athlete. But at 19, this young Kosovan judoka - or judo player - carries the sporting dream of her nation.
After winning gold at the junior world judo championship in Paris last year, she has her sights set on representing Kosovo at the London Olympics in 2012. But international politics is standing in the way.
Kosovo unilaterally declared independence from Serbia in February 2008, an act rejected by Belgrade and not sanctioned by the United Nations Security Council because of opposition from Russia and China.
MAJLINDA KELMENDI - THE FACTS
Region: Peja, Kosovo/Albania
Career highlights: Gold medal, 2009 World Junior Championships, Paris
Its autonomy has been recognised by 69 countries to date, not enough to gain membership of the International Olympic Committee (IOC).
If Kosovo fails to be affiliated to the body by 2012, Kelmendi will have to explore other options, like competing as an independent athlete for the IOC, which has happened in past games.
As she takes a break from her intensive training session, Kelmendi tells me how she would feel if she succeeds in becoming the first Olympic athlete to represent the Republic of Kosovo.
"I would be the happiest person in the world", she says. "We are a new state so it would be a perfect chance to show the world that in Kosovo are a lot of young people who really can do good things."
We talk in the modern, brightly lit judo hall in her hometown of Peja - or Pec as it is called in Serbian - nestled beneath the mountains of western Kosovo. The facility was built by Driton Kuka, Kelmendi's coach, who says he spotted her potential early on.
The BBC's Mark Lowen gets to grips with Kosovo-born judoka Majlinda Kelmendi
"From the beginning I saw in Majlinda something that the others didn't have," he explains. "She's ambitious, very brave and a real fighter."
The walls of the sports hall are adorned with framed photographs of Kelmendi's sporting success, which, Driton believes, inspires other athletes.
"For all judo players, Majlinda is some kind of hero", he reflects. "In her they can see somebody that is really special for them."
Sport has given new opportunities to this small Kosovan community, as it tries to move on from the devastating war of the 1990s.
The conflict was the culmination of years of tension in the province, in the southern part of Serbia and populated by an ethnic Albanian majority and Serb minority. As separatist insurgency grew in Kosovo, Belgrade sent in its troops.
Besim Hasani, Chairman of the Kosovan Olympic Committee
With hundreds of thousands fleeing the province and reports of mass ethnic cleansing, Nato called it a humanitarian catastrophe and, in March 1999, began a 78-day bombing campaign of Serbia and Montenegro, then called Yugoslavia.
After the ceasefire, Kosovo was placed under UN administration. Nine years later, the province declared independence.
Today, calm has largely returned to this rural territory but the diplomatic wranglings continue. In his cramped office in the capital, Pristina, the chairman of the Kosovo Olympic Committee, Besim Hasani, tries to forge contacts with the IOC to lobby for Kosovo's cause.
Behind him, the Kosovo Olympic Committee sign rests against the wall, as if waiting in hope to be proudly nailed up one day.
"My dream is to see Kosovo at the Olympic Games", he tells me. "And after that, if I die, it's okay for me."
I ask whether any Kosovan athletes might still compete for Serbia if Kosovo's attempts at membership of the IOC are unsuccessful. He pauses, staring straight ahead: "Never. Never."
It may be over a decade since the war ended but the wounds remain raw here and the two communities - Albanian and Serb - are still deeply segregated.
Down the road, various other young sporting hopefuls are training in the local municipal centre, its ageing concrete rooms brought alive by the echo of table-tennis balls and rows of punch-bags.
A group of young boxers crowd around one towering figure, Aziz Sallihu, the only Kosovo-born Olympian, who brought home a boxing bronze for the then Yugoslavia in 1984.
BBC World Class is a project uniting schools around the world through World Olympic Dreams
"The world must do something for these athletes," he tells me as his young proteges practise their moves.
"They might train for years and then not get to compete at the Olympics and it's not their fault. If they can't take part in international competitions, we might lose this generation of sportsmen."
After training and afternoon school, Kelmendi helps her mother to prepare the energy-filled evening meal at home, a short walk from the judo hall. The house is filled with her medals and trophies as well as family albums stuffed with local press clippings about her sporting success.
"I'm sure that if I did not train judo I would be nobody, especially in Kosovo," says Kelmendi, her modesty never fading. "I just want to make my coach and my family proud of me."
She is certainly the pride of Kosovo. But this determined athlete will not stop at that.
She will keep fighting until she walks into the stadium in London clutching what she hopes is a Kosovo flag.
We will be following the progress of a selection of athletes and we would like to hear from you.
What would you like to ask about Majlinda's build-up to the Olympics? What are her hopes? How popular is her sport in Kosovo? Send us your questions for Majlinda using the form below.
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