Kosovo’s 400 metres runner Vijona Kryeziu has been training for the Olympic Games in the mountains around her native village of Rogane, fulfilling a dream that until recently seemed impossible to many of her country’s athletes.
The Rio Games will be the first to host athletes competing under the flag of Kosovo, which proclaimed independence from Serbia in 2008, nine years after a NATO bombing campaign to drive Serbian forces from its territory.
“I am very lucky to be part of these Games,” Kryeziu, 18, said.
To pursue their careers before, many athletes from the small Balkan country had to leave their home towns to participate under another country’s flag.
During London 2012, judo double world champion Majlinda Kelmendi had to compete for Albania. In Rio she will proudly carry the Kosovo flag at the opening ceremony.
“It is big success for Kosovo that is represented for the first time with its flag,” President Hashim Thaci said on Friday when he handed over the flag to Kelmendi. “This is the break of isolation from sport after almost three decades.”
Summing up the jubilation of many, he said last month on Twitter: “We may get gold, we may not, still #heroes.”
Kosovo finally became member of the Olympic Committee in 2014. This year it joined UEFA and FIFA.
“I never thought that I will see this day,” said 800 metre runner Musa Hajdari, Kryeziu’s team mate. “It is a big responsibility for us and we will try to go and give the maximum,” he said.
With her nails painted red, Kryeziu fixed the starting block for her and Hajdari.
She acknowledged they were running in the woods because there was no athletics stadium nearby. “The conditions for us are not good.”
Hajdari and Kryeziu are the two of eight athletes from Kosovo who will be travelling to Rio. The other six are two swimmers, two judokas, a cyclist and a shooter.
“A lot of children were born as talents but they will die without knowing their talent,” said Zijadin Kryeziu, the country’s athletics coach, referring to the many who were not given the opportunity to participate in big sports events.
“We will try to make a good debut,” said Kryeziu, who also works as a teacher. “Everything that happens there will be a miracle.”