Kosovo has found the way to restart in judo

From rubble to Olympic medals. Thus Driton Kuka, the coach of the national team, managed to create a large and successful judo school in Kosovo

When a month ago Krasniqi District won the judo gold medalist at Paris Grand Slam 2023, he was waiting for her at the corner. He was also there at Tokyo 2020, when Krasniqi and Nora Gjakova again climbed to the top step of the podium. It was her chest on which Majlinda Kelmendi melted in liberating tears after the first Olympic gold in the history of Kosovar sport, in Rio 2016. Kuka shines there is always in the victories on the tatami of the small Balkan country because, more than being the coach of the national team, he is the man who created judo in Kosovo.

“Pejë, my city, was destroyed during the Kosovo war: 20,000 houses burned down, including mine and my family’s. So for a while I slept in the dojo (the ‘place where you follow the way’, i.e. the martial arts gym, ed) which was saved only because there was nothing to burn inside”, says Kuka, reached in twenty minutes break between workouts. Kosovo, which had just come out of one of the last Yugoslav wars, didn’t have much to offer and so “I took kids off the streets to introduce them to judo. At the beginning it was very hard, I was guided only by the passion and investment of my family”. Driton Kuka in fact shares the passion for judo with his brothers, one of whom, Agron, is the current president of the Kosovar federation.

Born in 1971, Kuka was a legend of Yugoslav judo as a young man: several times national champion and with excellent achievements even beyond the Yugoslav borders, his ascent came to an abrupt halt before the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. they will bloody the Balkans for a decade and in protest against the policies of Slobodan Miloševic, “together with my other companions I decided not to leave for the Olympics and my dream was interrupted”.
He then began his coaching career in Pejë (Pec in Serbian), a city in the western part of the country, inhabited mainly by Albanians but close to the Serbian-Orthodox monastery of Decani, declared a UNESCO heritage site. “In the beginning we financed ourselves, then we started receiving support from the government, also because the results we obtained helped make our country known around the world”. However, the transition from great judoka to legendary coach was not obvious. “This is a specific sport, you need to work hard, but with intelligence. When I was young I was a good athlete and obviously I knew the technique well, but it wasn’t enough to become a good teacher: that’s why at first I trained with my Slovenian friend Marian Fabian, but I went about thirty times to Italy, France and Germany, very strong countries in terms of judo. You have to see and learn, knowing that if you go to a great coach he certainly won’t come to reveal his secrets to you ”. However, the great coach in matches is above all a strategist: a judo match “is a small war, and it is fought by the athletes who challenge each other but also by the coaches with their tactics”.
The first judoka to be talked about internationally was Majlinda Kelmendi. She was born in 1991, in 2012 she participated in the London Olympics with the Albanian national team (the closest one for Albanian-speaking Kosovars), after the refusal by the Olympic Committee to admit her country to the Games. Due to her status, Kelmendi had previously been at the center of various offers (some very financially advantageous) from other national teams, all promptly rejected in the hope of one day competing under the blue, gold and white flag. Dream that finally came true in Rio 2016, crowned by her final triumph against the Italian Odette Giuffrida. The Olympic gold was repeated five years later by Nora Gjakova and Distria Krasniqi.
The most surprising aspect is that all these athletes come from Pejë, or rather from the Asllan Ceshme area, the Kuka gym district. Difficult to explain such a high concentration of talent in such a small area. “Passion, great love for Kosovo and hard work”, is the formula that identifies Kuka, who also has a ready answer on the different results between men and women as regards judo in his country: “Women work harder and they are ready to sacrifice everything to achieve the goal. Men, on the other hand, want to win, but also want to have a beer once in a while and be late at night. Now we have a European champion (Akil Gjakova, brother of Nora, ed), but obviously he is not yet at the level of Kelmendi and the others ”.
Kuka received a lifetime achievement award in 2021 from the International Judo Federation: that year Kosovo, in addition to the two Olympic gold medals, had been the most successful country at the European Championships in Lisbon. “As far as my work is concerned, I have achieved everything I could ask for. We started from the road and arrived at the Olympics: from this point of view, my dreams have all been fulfilled. Now I hope that sport will also lead the way in relation to political issues”. Kosovo is a young nation, but with a troubled history and present: declaring itself independent from Serbia in 2008, it is not yet recognized, among others, by China, Russia, Greece and Spain. The Kosovo Force (KFOR), the international mission led by NATO to guarantee the country’s security and stability, operates within the country, with the commitment also of the Italian Carabinieri. “I hope those who oppose Kosovo’s independence can change their minds. We are working to build our future as a European nation”, declares Kuka, before concluding: “My dream now is to one day be part of the European Union and the United Nations, within a free state recognized by all nations ”.


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