Balkan Athletes Ready to Wave Flags in Rio
By Ivana Nikolic
Each country in the Balkans is sending its team to the 31th Summer Olympics Games in Brazil, which last from August 5 to August 21.
The most colourful event — apart from the matches themselves — is the Parade of Nations, which forms part of the official opening of the Games.
From water polo goal keepers to judo experts, sports shooters, members of the women’s handball and young swimmers, they are all equally excited about being chosen to carry the national flag.
Albania’s female runner
Luiza Gega is a 28-year-old athlete specializing in middle-distance running. She is the Albanian record holder in the 800, 1,500 and 3,000 metres, as well as the 3,000-metre steeplechase.
Recently, Luiza claimed the silver at the European Athletics Championships in Amsterdam in July, setting a national record of 9:28.52 in the women’s 3000-metre steeplechase.
She is also the only Albanian athlete to qualify for Rio — although, despite her success, the Albanian authorities seem to turn a blind eye to her needs.
Gega has been training in Tirana’s national park on an improvised running track for amateurs as the Qemal Stafa national stadium is being demolished to pave the way for the construction of a new stadium and a shopping centre.
Despite the tough training conditions, Gega seems optimistic about her chances in Rio.
“When I learned from the media that the stadium would be demolished I didn’t believe this could happen before the Olympics. I had trained there for years and don’t know what I will do now. This is my first Olympics Games. I am looking forward to it but I have to work hard,” Gega told the media.
Bosnia’s top runner
Tuka was named the Balkans’ Best Athlete in 2015. Photo: Wikimedia/Erik van Leeuwen.
Amel Tuka, a 25-year-old middle-distance runner born in the central town of Kakanj, has already done a lot for his country, earning Bosnia’s first medal in a major athletics championship with third place in the men’s 800 meters at the 2015 World Championships in Athletics.
Tuka also holds two national records for Bosnia and Herzegovina for the 400-metre and 800-metre disciplines.
During his career, which started only eight years ago, Tuka has won a number of domestic and international competitions, and was also named the Balkans’ Best Athlete in 2015.
Among his best results was a run in Monaco in 2015, where he positioned himself as the world leader in the men’s 800 metres.
Tuka’s eyes are now on Rio. “The Olympic Games are a special story. Entering the finals would be a great result but let’s see what happens. Of course, my goal is a medal, the first [Olympics] since our country gained independence,” Tuka said.
Bulgaria’s sprinter star
“At my first Olympics 12 years ago, I really did not care,” said Ivet Lalova, a 33-year-old athlete from Sofia who won two silver medals at the European Athletics Championship in Amsterdam in early July.
“For me, it [carrying the flag] is something amazing — a dream come true,” she added.
In three previous Olympic Games, Ivet always reached the semi-finals in one of the two crown disciplines — the 100 and 200 metres.
Her best performance was at her Olympic debut in Athens in 2004 when she finished fourth in the 100 metres and fifth in the 200 metres. Four years later, the sprinter star reached the semi-finals in the short sprint, while in 2012 in London she entered the semi-finals in both disciplines.
She is the 12th fastest woman in 100-metre history, and the bearer of several medals from European championships both as a junior and senior.
Ivet comes from a sporting family. Her father, Miroslav, was the Bulgarian 200-metre champion back in 1966.
Croatia’s water polo master
“In the name of all the athletes, I promise we will decently represent Croatia in all the training sessions and matches … I am convinced we will come back from Brazil with medals,” said Josip Pavic, a water polo goal keeper who currently plays for Olympiacos Piraeus in Greece.
The 34-year-old is well acquainted with the Olympics — those in Rio are his third. He competed in 2008 and in 2012, winning a gold in London.
Pavic started playing water polo back in 1992, at the Jadran club in Split, Croatia, and has played in many clubs, including ones in Serbia and Montenegro.
Pavic has been honoured several times: in 2012, he was named Male Water Polo Athlete of the Year by the International Swimming Federation [FINA]. Three years later he was named Best Goalkeeper of the 2015 World League Super Final in Bergamo, Italy. At that time, however, he was playing for Zagreb’s Mladost Water Polo Club — and did not receive a salary for 18 months due to the club’s financial difficulties.
Kosovo’s judo lady
Majlinda Kelmendi is a successful 25-year-old judoka and very likely one of the most successful sportswomen in the history of Kosovo. Rio in 2016 is the country’s first-ever Olympic Games, so Majlinda has the honour of being the very first flag bearer.
She started judo back in 1999 in her hometown of Pec/Peja, in western Kosovo.
Kelmendi has a history in the world of judo — she was world judo champion in 2013 and 2014 as well as triple winner of the Grand Slam in Paris 2014, 2015 and 2016. She also won the Grand Prix in Budapest in late June.
She is also ranked first in the world list of International Judo Federation for judoka, in the under 52-kg category. But despite being one of the country’s best athletes, Majlinda has often complained that the state fails to support future athletes like herself.
Apart from winning medals, Majlinda won an important diplomatic victory: after winning first place in the European Judo Championship in Russia in April, she notably convinced Russia, a firm opponent of Kosovo’s independence, to play the Kosovo national anthem — which created some controversy.
Still, Rio is not the first time the 25-year-old is playing in the Olympics. She also played in the 2012 London Olympics. But on that occasion she represented Albania, as the International Olympic Committee, IOC, had not yet recognized Kosovo.
Majlinda is convinced she will win a medal in Rio. “For me, it will be the ultimate success; after winning the world and the European judo championships, I am missing only this medal,” she told BIRN in early July.
Macedonia’s swimming princess from US
Anastasia Bogdanovski is the youngest flag bearer from the Balkans. Aged 23, she was born in New Jersey, in the US, where her parents migrated before she was even born.
Anastasia, who will be swimming in the women’s 200-meter freestyle, founded it hard to believe she will be competing in Rio. “It’s kind of surreal. I feel like we’ve been waiting for so long,” she said.
She is a member of Macedonia’s national team and holds as many as five national records — 50-metre free, 100-metre free, the 200-metree free, the 50-metre back and the 100-metre back.
The year 2016 marks an important milestone for her not only because of her first Olympic Games but also because she has started at Rutgers University’s New Jersey Medical School.
Bogdanovski’s first love was horseback riding and she even became a nationally ranked jumper, but dropped it after several injuries.
Instead, she went into the pool. Anastasia was recruited for the Macedonian national team during college. At that time, she swam for Johns Hopkins’ NCAA Division III swim team and was competing on the international stage for Macedonia at the same time.
Before departing for Rio, Anastasia admitted she did not expect to win a gold medal, but said her goal is to swim her personal best time and set a new Macedonian record.
Montenegro’s handball veteran
The 37-year-old mother of two is also one of the most awarded player. Photo: Twitter.
This 37-year-old playmaker — considered the best female handball player of the past two decades — is back on court after short retirement and the reason is Rio.
Bojana Popovic has played no competitive handball since her retirement in 2012, shortly after winning an Olympic silver for Montenegro.
“The Olympic Games are special. London made a strong impression on me and at the time I said that only the Olympic Games can motivate me to relive something big,” Popovic said.
The 37-year-old mother of two is also one of the most awarded players — she has won several Champions Leagues, the Women’s EHF Cup, as well as Danish, Serbian and Montenegrin championships.
However, her best results were a bronze in the World Championship in 2001 when she played for Yugoslavia, and a silver in the Olympics in London four years ago, wearing a Montenegrin jersey.
Born in the Serbian southern city of Nis, Popovic started playing handball at the age of 11. She spent the majority of her career in Denmark, where she was Player of the Year four times, as well as a top scorer for the Danish League and of the Champions League.
Media in the region — especially in Montenegro — reported her return with enthusiasm, hoping to see her brilliant play once again. The Montenegrin women’s handball national team has not seen a medal since London, and claim Popovic’s comeback is a good incentive and a great chance.
Romania’s gym queen
“And I’ve got the flag!!! So many emotions. Let’s go!,” Catalina Ponor, a 29-year-old artistic gymnast from Constanta on the Black Sea coast, said on her official Twitter account.
But these are far from Catalina’s first Olympic Games. She won three gold medals at the 2004 Summer Olympics, and earned a silver medal and a bronze at the 2012 Summer Olympics.
Catalina is also the bearer of multiple World Championship and European Championship medals.
For Cata, as Romanians call her, success started when she was only four years old. She was then “discovered” in 2002 by the Romanian national team coaches Mariana Bitang and Octavian Belu, who soon invited her to train for the national team.
The rest is more or less history for Romania’s top artistic gymnast. “Hello Olympic village!!!,” she tweeted again on July 29, upon her arrival in Rio.
Serbia’s shooting queen
When it comes to Serbia, it won’t be Novak Djokovic carrying the flag this time, as many would expect. The world’s top tennis player said he wouldn’t carry the flag, even if elected to do so by the Olympic Committee of Serbia, as “it is fair that someone else does it.” Djokovic carried it in 2012.
That “someone else” is sports shooter Ivana Maksimovic-Andjusic, the 26-year-old holder of a silver at the Women’s 50-metre rifle in the London Olympics.
Born in Belgrade, Ivana started training in 2002 and her entire career has been marked by domestic and international successes. While her best result is a London silver, she now hopes to return from Brazil with two medals.
Ivana is not the only one in her family with the Olympic medal — her father Goran Maksimovic, also a sport shooter, won a gold in the 10-metre air rifle event at the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul. He is also a member of Serbia’s Shooting Sport Federation.
After the Olympic Committee announcement, Ivana said another of her dreams had come true.
“Apart from [winning] Olympic medals, that is a highlight [in an athlete’s career]. That has always been my wish, I didn’t know it would come true that fast,” she said.
Originally published at www.balkaninsight.com on August 5, 2016.