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 were killed and fighting only ended when Nato intervened with airstrikes against 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.”
“This has been one long dream, 20 years in the making. If I die tomorrow I die a happy man.”
Besim Hasani, President of the Kosovo Olympic Committee
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.
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.
“For too long now Kosovo’s heroes have been politicians and martyrs. Now we want the athletes to take centre stage.”
To tell the story of the Kosovo Olympic Team, Jane teamed up with Jordan Laird and Ian Greenhill from Edinburgh-based production company Something Something. “It was spontaneous as I popped in to chat about another project, left and walked about five minutes down the road. Then I did a 180, walked back in the door, and told the guys the idea to make a documentary. Straight away they got it and were like, ’Let’s go to Kosovo!’" says Jane.
Because this project is time critical, it’s been a slow burner to get backing. “We see it as a race against time. This project can’t wait – so we are just doing it.” says Ian. “On our first trip we had no idea what to expect. We didn’t know if there would be internet. We expected to see bears. We are learning as much about Kosovo as we go along and hope people will learn too watching the film.”
“When Jane first mentioned the idea to us, the initial thought was we have to make this film. It can be quite easy though just to see ‘the story’ and be caught up in how great it is for us as storytellers, forgetting that this ‘story’ is someone’s life. When we went to Kosovo though and sat and spoke with Hazir, as he told us about his father, the struggle for him just to compete and how desperate he is to make his country proud it was as humbling a moment as I have ever experienced. If our film can in any way help him, and others in Kosovo with a dream, then it more so than ever feels like we need to make it.” says Jordan.
Go Go Kosovo! is not only the story about the dedication and focus athletes need to be able to compete at the Olympic Games, it’s about a fledging nation being able to compete on the world stage. Jane, Ian, Jordan and Gav (director of photography) hope to return on different trips over the next few months to capture the hard work-in-progress. “We want to show the highs and lows, thoughts and fears of the team and what it feels like to be the first generation of athletes to be able to compete for your country at the Olympics.”
The moment the Kosovan athletes step into the Olympic Stadium, they are going to make history. As Besim Hasani said, “For too long now Kosovo’s heroes have been politicians and martyrs. Now we want the athletes to take centre stage.”