Majlinda Kelmendi takes gold in 52kg judo, wins Kosovo's first-ever medal
Eight years ago, Kosovo declared independence from Serbia. Two years ago, it was recognized as an independent nation by the IOC. On Sunday, the Balkan nation earned its first Olympic medal.
And it ended up being gold.
Two-time world champion Majlinda Kelmendi entered the women's 52kg tournament as one of the top favorites in the division. She competed at the 2012 Olympics as a member of Albania's delegation, as Kosovo was not yet recognized by the IOC, but did not get past the second round that year.
Kelmendi received the honor of being the flag bearer for her homeland's small eight-athlete delegation in Rio, but even heavier than the weight of the flag was the burden of winning the nation's first medal.
Before the Olympics, Kelmendi had said that she hoped to bring joy to Kosovo's citizens – at least for a few days – and provide a temporary distraction from the problems they face on a daily basis.
In her first match of the day Saturday morning, Kelmendi delivered an ippon 25 seconds into a Round of 16 match vs. Switzerland's Evelyne Tschopp, then exploded with excitement immediately afterward.
But Kelmendi was forced to work harder in her next two matches. She edged out Mauritius' Christianne Legentil, the girl who eliminated her from the London Games, and Japan's Misato Nakamura, the 3-seed in the tournament, by virtue of having fewer shidos. That set up a Gold Medal Match with Italy's Odette Giuffrida.
Kelmendi got on the board quickly, scoring a yuko on Giuffrida just 29 seconds into the match. Neither judoka could put up a score for the rest of the match, giving the victory to Kelmendi and Kosovo.
"To be honest, I came here for the gold medal, but it's crazy," Kelmendi said, according to the Associated Press. "This is the first time that Kosovo is part of the Olympics, and for the first time, I think gold is huge."
IOC president Thomas Bach was on-hand at the award ceremony to hand out the medals. During a visit to Kosovo last year, Bach vowed to try his best to personally present Kosovo its first medal whenever the time came.
"I always wanted to be part of the Olympic Games with the Kosovo flag and the Kosovo anthem," Kelmendi said. "I had dreamed for this moment for so long and I had refused so many offers, so many millions from other countries (to represent them).
"There are no millions in the world that can make me feel how I feel today."
The first bronze medal went to Nakamura, who scored the winning yuko 2 minutes, 20 seconds into a golden score period during her medal match with Brazil's Erika Miranka. The other bronze went to Russia's Natalia Kuziutina, who pinned China's Ma Yingnan for an ippon during their Bronze Medal Match.
Women's 52kg results
Gold: Majlinda Kelmendi (KOS)
Silver: Odette Giuffrida (ITA)
Bronze: Misato Nakamura (JPN)
Bronze: Natalia Kuziutina (RUS)