(ATR) Kosovo NOC president Besim Hasani says that it has been a “huge honor” for Kosovo to compete at its first major international event since being recognized by the IOC in December 2014.
The small Balkan nation is represented by a delegation of 18 athletes in nine sports at the inaugural European Games in Baku.
Kosovo athletes at the opening ceremony of the Baku European Games (Getty Images)
“They are in the athletes village with winners of Olympic medals – to touch with them, to speak with them, everyone is happier,” Hasani said of Kosovo’s predominantly young athletes. “It is the best experience ever.”
“For more than 22 years, our athletes didn’t have the opportunity to take part in international events, so recognition by IOC and later EOC of our national Olympic committee enabled us to participate in these European Games,” Hasani told ATR
during a sit-down interview in Baku.
“For the first time, we saw our athletes parading with our flag in front of a huge crowd and many international television viewers,” Hasani said of the June 12 opening ceremony in Baku, in which Kosovo received a rousing welcome.
“It was a fantastic moment for us – a historic day,” he said.
Two-time world champion Judoku Majlinda Kelmendi – who would have been a serious gold medal contender had an injury not prevented her from competing – led the delegation as Kosovo’s flagbearer.
Light heavyweight boxer Armend Zhoxhaj and karate competitor Alvin Karaqi came close to winning medals for Kosovo, Zhoxhaj losing in a quarterfinal bout and Karaqi faltering in a tight bronze medal match.
“We were very close to having two medals,” Hasani said.
Hungary competes with Kosovo (white) during women's judo at Baku. (Getty Images)
Hasani says a first medal for Kosovo is still conceivable as the nation enters two capable contenders in judo, which begins at Aliyev Arena on Thursday.
Hasani advised that the support and interest toward Kosovo’s first major foray into Olympic level competition from friends and supporters back home has been inspiring.
“It is the most important event, and everyone is following,” Hasani said. “Even the journalists have been very critical, asking why don’t we have any medals,” he said with a laugh.
The Kosovo NOC president comforted a 17-year-old archer Linje Sahiti, who withdrew from her event against a six-time Olympian from Italy shortly before competition due to stress and food poisoning.
“She didn’t sleep all the night before this competition, and I wanted to go to the athletes village to talk to her,” the Kosovo NOC president explained. “She was crying, and I told her that whatever journalists will come to you [in Kosovo], just tell them that it was your decision not to compete. I want to protect her for the future.”
Spirit of Sport Brings Kosovo, Serbia Together
Due to its lack of diplomatic recognition from 85 member countries, Kosovo has not been accepted into the United Nations. Within the European Union, it is recognized by 23 of the 28 members.
Kosovo NOC president Besim Hasani in Baku (ATR)
Despite the on-going political rift and animosity between the former Yugoslavian states Kosovo and Serbia, Kosovo having declared its independence in February 2008, Hasani advised his athletes to reach out and meet with their fellow Serbian competitors.
“I was asking them, 'How are you feeling here? Are you together as a group?'” Hasani explained. “All but one said yes, and he advised that he didn’t want to interact with Serbians.
“I said, 'Why?' The war happened 16 years ago, and you guys were only three or four years old, so none of them were guilty,” Hasani continued.
The Kosovo NOC president advised that he later found out that this individual’s father was killed in the war.
“We should understand these circumstances, but what is important is that the behavior is good and they are enjoying each other like nothing has happened before,” Hasani said.
“I think sport is a good means to recover what has happened in the past and its fantastic for the Olympic movement.”
“Everything happened thanks to Thomas Bach, who is such a visionary, and I realize it was not easy to accept Kosovo into the Olympic family,” Hasani said.
Hasani said that Kosovo’s presence at these games has been a rewarding and learning experience, one that will serve the small nation of approximately two million, when they compete at the Rio de Janeiro Olympics next summer.
“We are new with the IOC. We are new to competing with the international federations, and I told [the athletes] please behave and give the best of you,” Hasani said.
“Everyone of us is having a new experience. It was hard to choose the uniforms. We didn’t have sponsors. We had a lot of problems, and all of these things are a huge learning experience,”
“I think we learned a lot, and this will help us to be better everywhere in the next events and especially in Rio 2016.”
Reported by Brian Pinelli in Baku
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