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Kosovo judo champ heads to Games, flag or no flag

By Fatos Bytyci

PEJA, Kosovo (Reuters) - Politics will decide whether Olympic hopeful Majlinda Kelmendi will be allowed to represent her native Kosovo at this year's Olympic Games in London.

Unless the International Olympic Committee (IOC) decides to recognize the country as an independent state - and follow 89 countries that have done so already - judo champion Kelmendi will be unable to fly the flag of the young Balkan state.

"Maybe I won't be able to be presented under Kosovo, but everyone will know that I'm from Kosovo," the 20-year-old said during training this week.

Kelmendi's face looks down from billboards in the Kosovo capital, Pristina, four years after the territory declared independence from Serbia.

But the world is so far split on whether to recognize Kosovo as a sovereign state, and it has yet to join the United Nations.

The dispute means Kelmendi will likely have to carry the flag of either the International Judo Federation or neighboring Albania.

Ninety percent of Kosovo's 1.7 million people are ethnic Albanians, and some carry Albanian passports given that many countries do not recognize their Kosovo documents.

"Until the last moment our hope is to go to London as Kosovo," said Kelmendi's coach Driton Kuka during a training session set against towering snow-covered mountains in the west Kosovo town of Peja.

LOSE ATHLETES

Many sportsmen and women from Kosovo have chosen to emigrate in order to take part in major sporting events that are, on the whole, still out of reach for Kosovo given that it is yet to become a member of the United Nations.

"If this goes on, in a few years we will lose all our athletes because they are the best in Kosovo and they want to challenge themselves with other players outside our country."

Serbia lost control over Kosovo in 1999 when NATO bombed for 11 weeks to halt the killing and expulsion of ethnic Albanian civilians in a two-year Serb counter-insurgency war.

But backed by Russia, Belgrade says it will never recognize the new state.

Kuka has already had a taste of how politics can interfere in sport.

In 1992, he was due to represent Yugoslavia at the Barcelona Olympics, when the country slid into war and he cancelled his trip.

Kuka said he had turned down offers of a far greater salary from Azerbaijan and Turkey as a judo trainer, but both he and Kelmendi had decided to persevere in Kosovo.

"I'm feeling good, but it's a big responsibility when you are the only one from a country and you know that people expect a lot from you," said Kelmendi.

(Editing by Alison Wildey)