This year is a big one for Kosovo – as it’s the first time ever in history that Kosovan athletes are allowed to compete in the Olympic Games. The moment the athletes step into the Olympic stadium in Rio waving the national flag will mark the realisation of a 20-year dream for this small, young nation.
When people think of Kosovo, they tend to think of war. At the height of the war from 1998 to 1999, over 850,000 refugees were forced to flee to neighbouring countries. Over 13,000 people, mostly Albanians, were killed and fighting only ended when Nato intervened with airstrikes against Serbian military targets. After almost a decade of UN intervention to restore stability, Kosovo finally declared independence on the 17 February 2008. Ever since then Kosovo has been fighting for international recognition on the world stage.
Photographer Jane Stockdale got involved in this project after a chance encounter with Besim Hasani, the President of the Kosovo Olympic Committee. “I was in Kosovo on a field trip in 2012 with Cambridge University and met Besim at a BBQ. At the time everyone was talking about the London Olympics – but the Kosovo Olympic Team weren’t allowed to compete! Besim told me about it and straight away I was curious and inspired by his story. Bt the end of our chat I said, ‘if Kosovo finally get the right to compete at Rio 2016, I’d love to come back and make a documentary’. We shook on it. I think he thought I was joking but I’ve been following the story ever since.”
Jane has since returned to Kosovo a number of times to document the athletes who are on a collective journey to try to make it to the Games. “It’s important to document as its such a big deal for the country.” The Kosovo Olympic Committee was given a modest budget to help support six athletes to train for Rio 2016. But, in order to give more athletes a chance, they managed to stretch it to support eleven. “Each athlete gets a small salary every month but that has to cover everything – travel, accommodation, equipment – everything,” says Jane. “All the athletes and coaches we’ve met are humble, hard-working, and focused. The track athletes didn’t have a a running track, so the coach built them one. The swimmers didn’t have a pool, so one of the swimmers dads built one. We’re totally inspired by the team and hope they make it to Rio.”
A couple of the athletes Jane is following include the World No. 1 Judo Champion Majlinda Kelmendi, “she’s a national hero and like the David Beckham of Kosovo” and Hazir Asllani, Kosovo’s Archery Champion. “Hazir’s dad used to be a champion wrestler but died in the war when he was only four years-old, so he’s sort of following in his fathers footsteps.” However, to qualify for Rio 2016 all athletes need to achieve a certain number of points, so the Olympic Committee still don’t know who will make it yet.
Jane Stockdale: Go Go Kosovo!
At a time when sports photography is so tightly managed by brands with careful product placement and overzealous styling, images of sporting achievement have become sanitised and commercialised. Jane’s images are the antithesis of this and show the authentic passion and commitment of the athletes. “We tend to see athletes in the big glory moments but I’m really interested in all the hard graft that goes on behind the scenes,” she says.