The next day I return to the HOUSE OF SPORT. This time I go to a narrow room on the second floor whose defining attribute is its impressively bulky Xerox machine. There, I meet the leaders of the Kosovo Gymnastics Federation.
Amir Tahiraga is the General Secretary. Besim Halilaj is its President. They both also have part-time jobs: Halilaj is an assistant professor of physical education and Tahiraga works in his mother’s jewelry shop. Halilaj has a pair of large wraparound shades. Tahiraga has a mouth full of Lucky Strike-stained teeth, and is generous with his cigarettes. He’s also happily self-deprecating. At one point, fumbling through an explanation of the differences between the Albanians in Kosovo and the Albanians in Albania, he says, “here we are … softer Albanians.”
Tahiraga and Halilaj, now both 41, first met in the nineties, during Serbian occupation, as university students. The Faculty had no campus. The professors had no salaries. Its students attended lectures in cramped, cold, makeshift classrooms in private homes. They would do physical training, as best and surreptitiously as they could, in open yards.
“When we saw Serbian police, we must turn [away],” Halilaj says.
“To escape somehow,” Tahiraga explains.
If they were stopped, they’d be interrogated. “They ask us, what do you have in your bag, what do you train for— for war?” Halilaj says.
“Walking in the streets, we had different kinds of problems [with the police]” Tahiraga says. “It would go from them swearing at us, shouting bad words, up to beatings. Sometimes they beat people very badly. Beat people until they cannot even stand on their legs. That was the worst thing that can happen to a society. In Kosovo, the Albanians were kicked [out] from real life. That’s tremendously bad. That was the Serbian regime. That was the human brain that produced these kind of things.”
In 1995 the Dayton Agreement formalized an end to war in the Balkans. Yugoslavia splintered into independent nations. In The Hague, an International Criminal Tribunal went about the arduous work of meting out judgements to war criminals from Serbia, Bosnia, and Croatia alike.
Kosovo desired independence as well but remained, legally, a province of Serbia. Then, in 1998, Miloševiç ordered ground troops into Kosovo. The Kosovo War—an aftershock of the wars in the Balkans that destroyed Yugoslavia in the early nineties—had begun. 1.5 million Albanians would eventually flee the country.
Halilaj remembers the day when war uprooted his life. On the way to class at the Faculty of Physical Education and Sport, he saw not the usual police, but army troops. He was afraid, but attempted to keep his routine. “I went for the lecture, I opened the door—bwaaaaang. Nobody inside. I turned around, I saw my professor. He said, ‘Where are the others?’ I said, ‘I don’t know.’ He said, ‘You must go to your family. The situation is not good. Many Serbian forces are here.’ He said, ‘Please, keep doing the best for yourself.’”
Tahiraga cuts in, perhaps trying to end this line of conversation, perhaps just trying to help me understand. “So, yes,” he says. “This is a painful story from the war.”
After the NATO bombing campaign, Serbia retreated and Albanians who had fled Kosovo returned. Serbia continued to view Kosovo as a breakaway province. And Kosovo went about the business of building itself up.
“After the war, you couldn’t find any dog in Kosovo,” Hasani, the Olympic Committee president, says. “You couldn’t find any sheep. Naaaaaathing. Everything was stolen or killed. But I knew they could not destroy us all.”
Hasani had been running Kosovo’s Olympic Committee since 1996. To Hasani, the end of the war in 1999 meant one thing: it was time to get the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to recognize Kosovo. “You see that you have to give your contribution,” he says. “Being part of sport, this was my way.”
Hasani ran the same playbook from his karate days. To him, it was all about building momentum by getting recognition from various international bodies. Within the massive constellation of worldwide sports bureaucracy, these were obscure organizations. But to Hasani, it seems, this system had a gravitas akin to top-level diplomacy. Beaming, Hasani ticks off his accomplishments: In 2003, Kosovo table tennis was accepted by ITTF, the International Table Tennis Federation. In 2008, both Kosovo weightlifting and Kosovo softball were recognized by their respective international bodies. That same year, Kosovo declared independence from Serbia.
All the while, Hasani wrote letters to the IOC, waged pleading phone calls to the IOC, and buttonholed IOC officials at conventions. He was constantly “lobbying, lobbying, lobbying.” And still, reps from the IOC would tell him, wait your turn, wait your turn. Hasani was obsessed. To him, Kosovo wasn’t real until it was in the IOC. “I asked them, ‘What should we do now? What to do? You are not allowing us to be part of you! What should we do?!’”
The first time Hasani chokes up is when recalling the first time he actually got some good news. He was at IOC headquarters in Lausanne, Switzerland, in 2014 and Pere Miró, IOC Deputy Director General, greeted him with a hug and a furtive message: “I have one very good news for you,” Miro whispered in his ear. “It’s time for you to prepare your application. But nooooobody should know.” Hasani drops a pen onto his desk and stops talking. His eyes water. His throat constricts.
The second time Hasani chokes up is when recalling a follow-up conversation in Lausanne later that year. Miro found him again, and this time handed him a phone with Thomas Bach, the President of the IOC, on the other end of the line. The application had been accepted. Bach told him, “Besim, congratulations: the executive board decided unanimously…” Hasani’s voice pitches up. He slams the desk as he tells the story. He needs to tell it fast, before his voice fails him. “I was just saying, ohhhh, ohhh, ohhh. I couldn’t answer. I was crying, laughing, whatever!”
The third time Hasani chokes up is when recalling sharing the good news with his wife, Shpresa. He was in a hotel in Lausanne, and it was raining. As he tells it, first he engaged in a bit of melodrama: he went outside, dropped his head, stretched out his arms, and let the drops splash him. Then he called Shpresa. His voice indicated to her that something dramatic had taken place. She thought maybe something had happened with the kids?!
“I said, ‘No, everything is OK!’” He’s pausing between every few words. “I said, ‘Go sit. Everything is OK. But you are first person to know. That we are. Member. Of IOC!’” He can barely talk. His voice is a squeak. This is not the same imposing fellow I met a couple of hours back. “She was crying.” He picks up his car keys. He chucks them across his desk. “I was crying!”
He pauses, then continues. “One day, your dream is achieved. That same day, if I was dead—for me, was OK!”
In 2016, in Rio, Kosovo competed in its first-ever Olympics. In judo, in the 52-kg women's division, Majlinda Kelmendi won gold. Kosovo is one of only 100 countries to have ever won a gold medal. A plan is now underway for Kelmendi to join Bill, Hillary, Madeline, and Dua Lipa. Somewhere in the city, a concrete Kelmendi statue will be constructed.