The Torch

Meet The Newest Olympic Teams: Kosovo and South Sudan


Swimmer Lum Zhaveli (center) stands with members of his team from Kosovo.
Melissa Block, NPR
Swimmer Lum Zhaveli (center) stands with members of his team from Kosovo.

Two new flags will be flying high at the Olympic Games in Rio.

For the first time, South Sudan and Kosovo have been recognized by the International Olympic Committee.

South Sudan has three runners to its first Olympic Games. Kosovo, which was a province of the former Yugoslavia, will have eight athletes competing.

I found one of them, 50 meter freestyle swimmer Lum Zhaveli, 26, at the athletes village, proudly sporting his Team Kosovo shirt and an irrepressible grin.

"We're happy we're finally here and we are equal with everyone," he said. "Everyone is equal here. We're a small team, but we are quite proud. And we hope to win a medal or two."

Kosovo has a good shot for a medal in women's judo: Majlinda Kelmendi is considered a favorite. She's ranked first in the world in her weight class. She's also been given the honor of being her country's flag bearer in opening ceremonies.

She was able to compete for neighboring Albania at the 2012 Games in London, but did not medal.

Kosovo also has athletes competing in shooting, cycling and track.

Zhaveli was the first of Kosovo's athletes to arrive in Rio. Even though he has to share his small room in the athletes village with the office for the Kosovo team's chief of mission, he's not complaining.

Support comes from

"If I can help them, I will be happy. So that's cool," he said.

His country's path to the Olympics has been complicated, a victim of Balkan conflict.

After a war with Serbia in the late 1990s, Kosovo declared its independence in 2008. Serbia refused to recognize this, and strongly opposed Kosovo's bid to gain Olympic recognition.

But now, after years of diplomatic jousting, Kosovo is in.

Swimming coach Enver Hairedini said the wait was worth it.

"Of course it's a big dream for us," he said. "We've been waiting for this for so long, to be part of the biggest sports organization in the world. Even though we got recognized a bit late, it's still OK."

These days, every time swimmer Lum Zhaveli opens Facebook he's flooded with messages of support from friends and fans in Kosovo, overjoyed that they'll see their country competing on the Olympic stage for the very first time.

"No one is expecting us to do a miracle now," he says. "Everyone just wants us to have fun, maybe do our best, maybe do lifetime best."

Zhaveli says he's already thinking about helping the next generation of athletes from Kosovo, who will compete in the 2020 Summer Games in Tokyo.

Meantime, Kosovo's President Hashim Thaci has set his country's Olympic team photo as his Twitter background, and tweeted this:

"We may get gold, we may not, still #heroes."

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