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Page last updated at 10:16 GMT, Thursday, 21 July 2011 11:16 UK
Politics bears down on 2012 hopeful Majlinda Kelmendi

By David Eades
BBC News


No country for Olympic hopeful Majlinda Kelmendi

There will be more than 12,000 athletes competing in London - some will win medals, some will break records whilst some will just make up the numbers. All will be wearing their country's colours with pride.

But what if their country is not allowed to compete?

For one athlete from Kosovo, Majlinda Kelmendi, it is the question which haunts every day of her preparations for the greatest challenge her sport can offer.

"It's a wonderful feeling to compete for Kosovo," says the 22-year-old, as she takes a break from her exhausting training regime in the Rugova Mountains. "It is a chance to prove to the world that Kosovo has got talent, too".

Born: Peje, Kosovo/Albania
Year of birth: 1991
Discipline: Judo
Career highlights: Gold medal, 2009 World Junior Championships, Paris

Majlinda is from the town of Peje - the Serbs call it Pec - close to the border with Montenegro. A strikingly beautiful landscape surrounds a town, which still bears the ugliest of scars: building carcasses left untouched since the town was largely burned out in the conflict with Serbia.

It is a part of the world which has had to scrap for everything it holds dear.

But there can be no Kosovo flag flying in London unless the International Olympic Committee votes to recognise the country as an independent state - something the United Nations has yet to do.

And yet, if clutching at straws were an Olympic event, Besim Hakan would be a contender for gold. The president of Kosovo's Olympic Committee seeks a positive from every development. And he does see signs that Kosovo is edging closer to meeting the conditions required.

"We need recognition from at least five international federations," he tells me. "Table tennis, weightlifting and wrestling are with us. Archery is signing up. And maybe we will get the same from boxing, cycling and modern pentathlon."

He also points out that 76 nations do recognise Kosovo, even if IOC president Jacques Rogge wants to see at least 100 of the IOC's 205 member states on board before reconsidering Kosovo's status.

Sadly, the last to join that list was Andorra back in January. No progress in the last six months then.

Majlinda Kelmendi, judo fighter from Kosovo

Critically, recognition is not accepted by Serbia itself - Belgrade says it never will be. So until there is a significant political shift, there is little chance of recognition for Kosovo from the IOC.

But Kosovo's sports minister, Memli Krasniki, a one-time rap artist, is also determined to bang the drum at every opportunity to turn this story around.

After all, Kosovo's government now sponsors its greatest sporting star in her training - pushed into it by the vulture overtures of Azerbaijan, reportedly ready to offer Kelmendi a relative fortune to switch allegiance.

And it wants a return on its investment, something it will pursue, he says, to the last.

"Until the last executive committee meeting of the IOC, we will knock on every door, call on every phone and meet everyone that we can to get them to accept Majlinda to compete (in London) as a representative of the Republic of Kosovo," says Krasniki.

If that should happen, no-one would be more delighted than Majlinda's coach, Driton Kuka.

He, too, was a European judo medallist at a similar age to Majlinda but his career was cut short by the Balkan conflict. He retired from his sport to fight for the Kosovo Liberation Army.

"If she wins a medal," Kuka tells me, "half of it would be for me! And it will be the biggest thing in my life."

It remains a big 'if', not because Majlinda is an outside hope for a place on the podium. She is better than that. It is Kosovo which is the real long shot.

With less than a year to go before a final decision, there is little to suggest the country will overcome those odds and bring this Olympic dream to reality.


Majlinda Kelmendi in action

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see also
Kosovo's favourite child
16 Dec 11 |  World Olympic Dreams
In pictures: Majlinda Kelmendi
21 Jul 11 |  World Olympic Dreams
Politics bears down on 2012 hopeful
17 Sep 10 |  World Olympic Dreams
Brazilian judoka gets ready for Olympic stage
26 Jul 10 |  World Olympic Dreams

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