PRISTINA (Reuters) – Thousands lined the streets of Kosovo’s capital on Sunday to give a hero’s welcome to judo champion Majlinda Kelmendi as she arrived home after winning a gold medal in Rio 2016, the first Olympic games in which the small Balkan country took part.
Twenty-five year-old Kelmendi won gold last Sunday in the 52kg category, making history for the country of 1.8 million people which became independent in 2008.
Fans waving Kosovo flags chanted her name “Majlinda! Majlinda!” as Kelmendi waved to people from an open bus covered with her photo.
“When she won I cried like a baby. That was the best moment of my life since we declared independence,” said Emin Krasniqi, 62, as the bus carrying Kelmendi drove by.
The young woman had taken part in the London 2012 Olympics under the flag of Albania, as Kosovo was not yet recognized by the Olympic Committee.
“It still looks as a dream,” Kelmendi told reporters after walking on the red carpet rolled out for her at Pristina’s airport, where she was welcomed by Prime Minister Isa Mustafa.
“All the hard work and sacrifice I made, I did them for my country and my people,” Kelmendi said, adding that she plans to participate in the next two Olympics.
Many sports officials in Kosovo are calling on the government to declare judo a sport of national interest.
Kelmendi will get 100,000 euros ($112,000) from the government for winning the gold medal as Kosovo, one of Europe’s poorest countries, has said it would reward all medal winners.
($1 = 0.8956 euros)
(Reporting by Fatos Bytyci; Editing by Ingrid Melander, Greg Mahlich)