“We have transformed children who have suffered from the war into world champions, measuring ourselves against countries like France, Japan or Brazil that have thousands of judokas available to build their teams,” Kuka said.
The young and tiny nation of Kosovo has emerged as a world judo power, its unexpected success spearheaded by diminutive Olympic champion Majlinda Kelmendi.
Eleven years after it gained independence from Serbia and in her first summer Olympics, Kelmendi’s success in Rio in 2016 enabled Kosovo and its two million people to beat its big brother Albania that has never won an Olympic medal in any sport.
Kelmendi goes in search of more gold when she competes in the world championships in Tokyo that start on Sunday.
Kosovo’s judo success story was created by coach Driton “Toni” Kuka in the small town of Pec where he founded a judo club with his brothers.
A training room with a leaky roof and worn carpets did not prevent the club from producing champions — the authorities decided only recently to finance its renovation.