How a Kosovo tourism hub became a judo juggernaut

Driton Kuka with his most famous student, Majlinda Kelmendi.

AFP has an interesting story about how Driton Kuka and his brothers built up Kosovan judo.

Peja, on the edge of a mountainous national park with wide canyons and craggy peaks, will supply all five of Kosovo’s judo hopefuls at this summer’s Tokyo Games.

Among them is Majlinda Kelmendi, who won gold at the 2016 Rio Games — the only medal Kosovo has ever won, in the only Olympics it has competed in since declaring independence from Serbia in 2008.

Kelmendi’s feat sparked a craze for judo in Kosovo, which now has six judo schools, 17 clubs and 1,200 registered judoka.

The roots of the achievement go back to the implosion of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, and how this affected one man: judo coach Driton ‘Toni’ Kuka. 

As Yugoslavia splintered and spiralled into war, Kosovo’s athletes withdrew from the 1992 Olympic squad in protest against extreme Serb nationalist president Slobodan Milosevic. 

Kuka was shattered as he watched his judo career wash away in the maelstrom of conflicts that eventually saw NATO bomb Serbia to force its troops out of Kosovo.

Back in war-ravaged Peja at the turn of the millennium, Kuka and his two brothers — also judokas — had to begin anew. The brothers could only manage to set up a humble dojo within their home complex.

“I had to be coach, nutritionist, psychologist, physiotherapist. We didn’t have what we wanted for high-level sport,” says Kuka. But the Olympic gold medal changed all that.

“Now our team are treated like heroes,” he says. “Now we get the medical and financial support we need… Now every big tournament is on national TV. Everyone knows us.”

Kuka says the five judoka in the team for Tokyo are in the top 10 of their weight classes and each of them has a great chance of a medal. They also share another important characteristic — they are all from Asllan Ceshme, the Peja neighbourhood where Kuka is based.

“None of the competitors you see here live more than 200 or 300 metres from the dojo,” he says, referring to the five Olympic team members.

Their success has come from decades of hard work, with Kuka reflecting that his judoka have won all the medals possible — from regional championships to the Olympics. “This is something I never in my life thought I could do,” he says.