Mike Rowbottom ©ITG

Suddenly the handshake between Thomas Bach and Besim Hasani was not happening any more. The hand of the upwardly mobile International Olympic Committee vice president had halted in mid-air - at the point where Hasani had introduced himself as "President of the Kosovo Olympic Committee (KOC)."

That entity had been established in Kosovo in 1992 in the wake of the draconian measures imposed by Serbia whereby all of Kosovo’s Albanian population - which comprised around 92 per cent of the country - became, in Hasani’s words, "second-class citizens."

In sporting terms this meant there was no access for the vast majority of the Kosovo population to gyms, sports fields or arenas. And so it was that independent sporting bodies were established to the point where, on May 27, 1992 the KOC was formed.

Between formation and official recognition, however, there would be a gap of 22 years, during which time Hasani, who became President of the organisation in 1996, devoted his waking hours to lobbying those in the position to make "a dream" come true.

Despite the fact that Kosovo remains only partially recognised as an independent country by United Nations members - with Russia, China and Serbia as significant dissenters - its Olympic Committee got the nod from the IOC on December 9, 2014.

Two years later Majlinda Kelmendi made a golden impact in Kosovo’s first Olympic appearance as she won the women’s under-52 kilograms judo title in Rio - receiving her medal from Bach. At last summer’s delayed Tokyo 2020 Olympics two more female judokas stood on top of the podium for Kosovo as Distria Krasniqi won the under-48kg extra-lightweight gold and Nora Gjakova the under-57kg lightweight title.

Such golden glory, however, was a long way down the line as Hasani, who had already spent 18 years travelling and lobbying in the Kosovo cause, stepped forward for his long-awaited meeting with the IOC’s coming man while attending the 2009 SportAccord gathering in Denver.

"Wherever I travelled, it was maybe 10 times a year, maybe in 70 per cent of cases I travelled with my own money because I couldn’t lose any time, because nobody could believe that Kosovo NOC could become a member of the IOC until we were recognised as a state by the United Nations," Hasani told insidethegames.

"In Denver I was told Thomas Bach was ready to meet me at a certain time on a certain day. I was there in the lobby of the hotel and was on time. Accidentally Marius Vizer, President of the International Judo Federation - who has done so much to help us over the years -  came by and he asked what I was doing.

"I told him I had an appointment with Thomas Bach and Marius said ‘Do you know him? I will introduce you to him." And Bach was then coming down the stairs.  He and Marius greeted each other and I wanted to shake hands with Bach.

Besim Hasani has devoted 30 years to establishing the Kosovo Olympic Committee within the Olympic Family, most of it as the KOC President ©Getty Images
Besim Hasani has devoted 30 years to establishing the Kosovo Olympic Committee within the Olympic Family, most of it as the KOC President ©Getty Images

"I said: ‘I am Besim Hasani, President of the Kosovo Olympic Committee.’ He wanted to give me the hand, but when I said that he didn’t give me the hand. He said: ‘No. You don’t have the right to say that until Kosovo becomes a member of the IOC.’ And he turned back and started to speak with Marius.

"I wanted to die. I didn’t speak any more, I just stayed there like a robot. But OK, later, whenever I met Thomas, I said, ‘I am Besim Hasani, President of the organisation that aims to become the Kosovo Olympic Committee.’ And every time he smiled. One day I was sure he was going to support it.

"In 2013 I was with the United Nations, I think it was a Peace and Sport meeting, and in the same year was the IOC Presidential election.

"And I asked Thomas, should I apply for recognition now? And he told me: ‘No. Don’t move.’ And I said, OK. We didn’t know exactly who would be elected, but somehow I thought that he had more chances to become President.

"When he became President I had a lot of meetings with him. We had been advised in previous years not to apply until the time was right, and despite all the pressure I followed that. I didn’t make that mistake.

"And one day I was told: ‘It’s time to apply.’ It was September 2014."

Hasani had played the long game. "Eighteen years as President! I was just lobbying without big hopes, but it was maybe just a tiny light in the tunnel, but I didn’t give up. I didn’t want to give up. I said ‘OK, I will die and it’s not important but I go for my dream.’

"I didn’t think any of the other candidates could have pushed for Kosovo like Bach did. Once the IOC sports director Pere Miró told me: ‘You couldn’t imagine what Thomas Bach did to let Kosovo be recognised. What he sacrificed.’ And I am not sure even today why he supported, I just guess but I don’t know exactly.

"Because the easiest way was to just wait and say, please wait until Kosovo will be recognised by the United Nations. And even today we are not recognised by the United Nations. So he chose the hardest way.

"But I think the passion of our young athletes and the great results they had already obtained at European and World Championships, particularly through judoka such as Majlinda, will have been a big influence."

Reflecting upon the start of his long and winding road to historic success, the 65-year-old former KOC President  - who was last year awarded the Olympic Order - said: "I was involved in sport as an athlete in karate, then as a referee and a coach. From 1992 I was involved as a sports administrator. I became secretary general of the Kosovo Karate Federation.

Newly established as IOC President in 2013, Thomas Bach enabled Kosovo's Olympic Committee to be recognised even though the nation still awaits full United Nations recognition ©Getty Images
Newly established as IOC President in 2013, Thomas Bach enabled Kosovo's Olympic Committee to be recognised even though the nation still awaits full United Nations recognition ©Getty Images

"In 1992 Serbia changed the constitution by force in Kosovo. And 92 per cent of Albanians who were living in Kosovo became second-class citizens. All the Albanian workers who used to work in state companies were fired.

"Universities and schools were closed to Albanians. Only Serbs could attend. In field of sport, all gyms and stadiums were closed to Albanians.

"So in those circumstances we started to organise a life of our own. We started with education. In the field of sport we started to practise in basements or in open spaces, we would turn fields into 'stadiums' and set up goals there. This was the spark of how we organised our own independent sport.

"It was very dangerous, because there were lots of police around, but we were determined. So clubs started to be led by Albanians and then their representatives established National Federations in each sport.

"Once they had all been established the representatives of National Olympic Federations gathered on May 27, 1992 - so 30 years ago - and established the National Olympic Committee."

Two Presidents, career politicians, preceded Hasani. But in 1996 he was invited to take up the position he would go on to hold until March 27, 2021, when he was outvoted 53-41 by the current President, Ismet Krasniqi.

By the time he became President, Hasani had independently pioneered an opening for Kosovo karateka to compete in some international competitions after lobbying top officials in the sport and finding in George Popper, then secretary general of the European and World Karate Federations, a significant and sympathetic ally.

In the years that followed karate in Kosovo grew hugely as footballers, boxers, athletes all gravitated to the only discipline which allowed them to test themselves against those from outside their country.

And, step by step, with the tireless President trotting round the globe, 13 Kosovo national sports earned either total or partial recognition from International Federations.

The news of Kosovo’s recognition by the IOC, following a meeting of their Executive Board on October 22, 2014, prompted dancing in the streets of the capital, Pristina. Literally.

The decision ushered in a long-awaited new sporting era for the Balkan Republic which declared independence from Serbia in 2008 following years of conflict and bloodshed.

As the former Yugoslavia fragmented in the wake of the death of its President, Josip Tito, Serbia’s crackdown on Kosovo grew to the point where North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) called it a humanitarian catastrophe and in March 1999 began a 78-day bombing campaign on targets in Kosovo and Serbia which resulted in Serbia withdrawing in the summer of 1999.

After that, Kosovo was governed by United Nations (UN) and NATO forces as some vestiges of autonomy and self-Government gradually emerged under Prime Minister Ibrahim Rugova.

Distria Krasniqi and Nora Gjakova both won judo gold for Kosovo at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics ©KOC
Distria Krasniqi and Nora Gjakova both won judo gold for Kosovo at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics ©KOC

The declaration of independence was made on February 17 2008 and was swiftly recognised by the majority of the western world, including United States, Britain, France, Germany and Turkey.

For the KOC, the road to an independent, acknowledged existence was similarly long and winding - and the joy and passion recognition triggered was unforgettable.

The IOC Executive Board decision to accept Kosovo was taken despite the country only being recognised by 113 of the 193 United Nations eight years after independence had been declared.

Recalling the IOC EB verdict, which ruled that the organisation had "met the requirements for recognition as outlined in the Olympic Charter" despite not being a member of the UN Hasani told my former insidethegames colleague Nick Butler in 2015: "At the end of the first day I received a message from [Turkey’s EB member and World Archery President] Uğur Erdener saying: ‘Congratulations on becoming a provisional member of the IOC.’

"I had to read the message twice for it to sink in. I then received a phone call from [director of NOC relations and long-term supporter] Pere Miro, who said he had someone who wanted to speak to me, and that turned out to be Thomas Bach.

"At that moment I was the happiest man in the world," Hasani said shortly afterwards. "It was our highest recognition since independence."

He recalled the part played by Vizer. 

"Marius visited clubs and saw we have talented judoka. He looked at the statutes and found they weren't in our favour.

"So he went back and asked the IJF Executive Board how we can have more athletes, since the statutes are not in favour, and the Board decided to allow them to compete under the IJF flag.

"He gave us an opportunity to compete and judoka from Kosovo didn't let down him down, because we have since won five medals from European and World Championships.

"In other sports athletes also have values to share with the world. The IJF is richer due to Majlinda and I can guarantee the Olympic Movement would be richer with Kosovan athletes."

After NATO had stepped in in 1999 the judo coach, Driton Kuka started working with young judokas.

Majlinda Kelmendi shows off the judo gold she won during Kosovo's Olympic debut at the Rio 2016 Games to adoring fans in the capital of Pristina ©Getty Images
Majlinda Kelmendi shows off the judo gold she won during Kosovo's Olympic debut at the Rio 2016 Games to adoring fans in the capital of Pristina ©Getty Images

Over the past 30 years the KOC has won 13 medals in international events: three gold medals in Olympic Games, four medals in the Baku 2015 and Minsk 2019 European Games, one in the Youth Olympic Games in Buenos Aires in 2018, one in EYOF Baku 2019 and four in the Tarragona 2018 Mediterranean Games.

From all these medals, 12 are from judo and only one from athletics, at the EYOF Baku 2019.

After judo, karate is the most successful sport in Kosovo, with a world bronze medal in 2016 and a European bronze medal in 2021, both won by Herolind Nishevci.

In the wake of the full inclusion to the IOC, Hasani spoke of his determination for Kosovo to become a part of the Paralympic Movement – something that has yet to occur, although there are strongly encouraging signs.

After being re-elected in January 2017 Hasani added another target which he claimed was the sporting equivalent of "climbing Mount Everest" - that of reaching a top 10 position in the Olympic medals table by the Paris 2024.

"It is such an important dream to be realised that I will start it and maybe my successor will achieve the dream," he added.

As things turned out, Hasani’s comments about a successor came into play last year when, on March 27, he was replaced by Krasniqi, President of the Karate Federation of Kosovo.

And in September last year Krasniqi appointed Besim Aliti, a former Croatian karate international with extensive sports management experience, including serving as sports manager of the European University Sports Association since 2016, as the organisation’s secretary general.

Asked to assess the way judo has become synonymous with Kosovo’s successful arrival in the Olympic Movement, Aliti told insidethegames: "Definitely judo has been one of the first flagbearers of the Kosovo sports movement, not just the Olympic Movement. Because what we needed was to give hope to the future generations.

"So in this sense having the inaugural representation at the 2016 Olympic Games just two years after our recognition by the IOC it was important to have proper representation to believe the mark of our first participation.

"Olympic gold by our hero, Majlinda Kelmendi, was very important. This first Olympic gold definitely gave hope to Kosovo’s sports movement that it was possible to compete with the others.

Ismet Krasniqi, who succeeded Besim Hasani as KOC President after last year's election, has since appointed Besim Aliti, right, as secretary general ©Getty Images
Ismet Krasniqi, who succeeded Besim Hasani as KOC President after last year's election, has since appointed Besim Aliti, right, as secretary general ©Getty Images

"The successes at the last two summer Olympics are definitely key to building success in future generations and continuing to impress the world with our participation.

"I can just imagine the pressure Majlinda must have felt because the expectations for her were high. She was the world champion, she was one of the candidates to win, and to all this pressure she had at the same time to compete in a country that still didn’t recognise Kosovo as an independent country.

"It was remarkable for Kosovo and world sports history and I think it will be one of those poster moments which will inspire generations for many years to come.

"It galvanised the community to accept judo because Majlinda was I would say the Judo Revolutionary in Kosovo and people after her really understood what kind of a sport it is, how difficult it is, and started practising massively.

"This is a promise that there will be future generations in Olympic judo, but what we also need to do is to use this judo story to help raise other athletes. We have athletes who are capable of doing great things in different sports now, for instance wrestling, boxing and karate.

"Karate is one of the strongest sports in Kosovo, one of our top five sports, with a huge tradition in the country. We had beforehand in ex-Yugoslavia very many world and European medals and as Kosovo we have had one world and one European bronze and many fifth and seventh places.

"Unfortunately we didn’t have representation in Tokyo 2020 and one of the reasons why was that our athletes couldn’t compete in Serbia in 2018 at one of the tournaments which gathered Olympic ranking points.

"This was a big miss and it is definitely a bitter memory.

"Karate will not be in the Paris 2024 Games, which is something that is bad for us because it is one of the sports where we would definitely have had hopes of a medal. But we hope that karate will again be included in the Olympics at the Los Angeles 2028 Games."

The experiences of Kosovo’s karate exponents was mirrored last October at the International Boxing Association’s World Championships in Belgrade organised by the International Boxing Association - which changed its abbreviated name from AIBA to IBA in December. Despite having been given assurances to the contrary, Kosovo’s boxers were not allowed entry to compete.

"Three times our athletes attempted to enter Serbia and three times they were refused at the border on the grounds that they represented a threat to the host country," Aliti said.

“We were very…how would I even put this in words?  We were very sad to have such a strong influence of politics directly in sport. Which actually went unpunished I would say, which really makes us feel sad that politics actually won in this case.

"The reason I am saying this is that we had numerous meetings with AIBA where initially we were guaranteed the participation. I would say AIBA was also guaranteed because it was in their statutes that this is an AIBA event and once you have won it you have to guarantee the equal rights for all participating countries. Which in this was definitely not respected by the Serbian Organising Committee.

Kosovo faces ongoing problems with Serbia after its boxers were refused entry to compete in last year's AIBA World Championships in Belgrade ©Getty Images
Kosovo faces ongoing problems with Serbia after its boxers were refused entry to compete in last year's AIBA World Championships in Belgrade ©Getty Images

"At the end of the day regardless that AIBA had attempted and tried to help, actually they didn’t achieve any of the results and the actions went unpunished. We still have not received an official report from the AIBA Executive Board regarding what will be the result, whether there will be any sanctions, and what will happen regarding the costs to our federation and athletes, what will happen as regards to qualification.

"In our opinion this is still very much an open story where we expect, still expect, actions from AIBA to report on what their decision was and secondly to give a clear message that this is not something that should be tolerated."

Aliti also commented on the circumstances at the World Athletics Indoor Championships held in Belgrade in March, where Gresa Bakraqi represented Kosovo in the women’s 1500 metres but the Kosovan flag was seen to be missing from the display of nations within the Stark Arena.

Aliti paid tribute to the efforts of the IOC and World Athletics in allowing Bakraqi to compete but noted the flag controversy.

"This is number one mission, that our athletes have the right to compete internationally. Of course we were not happy that the Kosovo flag disappeared. We think it was discriminatory politics on behalf of the Serbian Organising Committee.

"What happened in the arena, how the flag disappeared - we have still not received this report. Nevertheless we feel it is progress. The fact that Gresa participated can help our future relationship. I think sport is a perfect platform for uniting rather than dividing."

Meanwhile there are rising hopes in Kosovo that the Olympic recognition of 2014 will shortly be followed by a similar move by the International Paralympic Committee (IPC).

"The Kosovo Paralympic Committee is unfortunately still not a member of the IOC but I wouldn’t say that the IPC is the reason why.

"The Kosovo Paralympic Committee has activated recently and as far as I am informed now they are finally at the stage where they can fulfil the requirements to become a member.

"They feel they are very engaged, very active, latterly and I have this positive feeling that very soon the Kosovo Paralympic Committee will be a member of the international family."

Hasani, meanwhile, has been acting as an expert senior adviser to the Kosovo Paralympic Committee and its President, Njomza Emini, and he believes this year could see its long-awaited entry into the IPC.

"I think this year we will be a part of the Paralympic Movement," he told insidethegames. "I plan to visit the IPC headquarters in Bonn with Njomza later this month when we hope to meet its President, Andrew Parsons. I hope we will be a part of the IPC by the end of this year."

As for Hasani’s vision of Kosovo reaching the top 10 in the Paris 2024 medals table, Aliti is more circumspect.

"I don’t think the sole measure of Kosovo Olympic Committee is just the winning of medals," he said. The goal is to win medals, but the KOC has such a broad variety of activities we are responsible for.

"First of all we need to fulfil the conditions for our members, the National Federations, to develop. We have an obligation to provide better conditions for our athletes - whether it is working with the Government to create better infrastructure or working with Olympic Solidarity and the Government to create better scholarships.

Kosovo's delegation at the Rio 2016 Olympics - the first Olympic Games held following the Olympic Committee's recognition by the organisation ©Getty Images
Kosovo's delegation at the Rio 2016 Olympics - the first Olympic Games held following the Olympic Committee's recognition by the organisation ©Getty Images

"There is very important role to educate, because we have recently started with the sole goal to create better conditions for licensing of our coaches, for gathering the best possible knowledge in the world so that we can develop our coaching system. Actually everything starts with that.

"We are also working on participation. Because if our people do not do sport we cannot expect that from a very small number of people who do sport we will have Olympic winners. We have to work to have a more massive representation of people who do sport in order to have enough selection to create winners.

"So I think we need to start from basics. From scratch. If we think of the Paris 2024 Games I think there are some advantages and some disadvantages.

"The disadvantage could be that the Olympic cycle is now four years shortened to three years, but this is a worldwide disadvantage.

"And then why I say advantage is because we have three years, not four, to remember our success in Tokyo.

"So we definitely have a hope that we can continue impressing, continue winning medals. Being top 10 is not something - we just need to be realistic. To be in the top 10 nations in the world with the 1.8 million population that we have is not maybe the most realistic wish.

"But it definitely our wish to continue having Olympic winners and to continue improving by our participation."

Reflecting upon the direction of travel under the new Presidency of Ismet Krasniqi, Aliti added: "In his candidature he presented a few of the key goals that were to be accomplished. One of these was to have a proper strategic plan for the macro-cycles for which he will be the President.

"And in each of these he pointed out milestones that need to be accomplished. One of those is definitely to be very active in terms of European integration - being part of European projects with the European Commission or the European Parliament and being more active in Olympic Solidarity and to have better co-operation with neighbouring countries and other Olympic Committees in Europe and the rest of the world.

"We have definitely done a great job with that in the past few months. We also aim to establish an Olympic Academy and to influence the coaching system in Kosovo to be better by collaborating directly with the University of Pristina.

"The NOC in our country is not responsible for building infrastructure but it is responsible for lobbying for sport and influencing those that are responsible. In our case most of the infrastructure is public so it under the management of the Government and the Ministry of Culture, Youth and Sport.

"So what Mr Krazniqi is doing right now is influencing and lobbying for strategic planning to build new infrastructure in the next four-to-ten years to suit the needs of our federations, clubs and athletes.

"I think this is very successful at the moment because the Government of Kosovo has given very good feedback and named sport as one of the main priorities of our country.

"And by having this message from the Prime Minister and the Minister for Culture, Youth and Sport we are now seeing signs that there will be definitely some big investments in the next few years in our sports infrastructure."

Hasani’s light at the end of the tunnel appears to be growing ever brighter.