Abrahamson: Judo can teach lessons about unity to the world

RIO de JANEIRO — This is a story about Olympic dreams, though it is not just about that. 

This is a story about families of all sorts, though it is not just about that.

This is a story about fairy tales, and how sometimes at the Olympic Games, in particular within the extended judo family — and it really is a family — fairy tales really can come true. 

Last Friday, at the Opening Ceremony of the Rio 2016 Olympics, judoka Majlinda Kelmendi carried the flag for Kosovo. It wasn’t until 2014 that the International Olympic Committee had even recognized Kosovo as a separate country — a process that had started in the sports world when the International Judo Federation became the first to say Kosovo was real, in 2012.

On Sunday, in the women’s 52kg (114 lbs) category, Kelmendi won gold.

This was the first medal at Kosovo’s first-ever Games. She made it gold.

Hashim Thaçi — Kosovo’s first prime minister, now its president — attended Sunday’s matches. Think of President Bush watching Michael Phelps at the Water Cube in Beijing in 2008, and you get the import of his appearance. Or  — if the imagination permits — if, say, George Washington had been at the Water Cube for Phelps.

International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach was on hand, too. 

Kelmendi defeated Italy’s 10th-ranked Odette Giuffrida in the final round, and by just one point. In a serendipitous touch, her victory made Kosovo the 100th national Olympic committee to win an Olympic gold medal, the 148th to win any kind of medal. There are just over 200 national Olympic committees around the world.

Marius Vizer, the IJF president, afterward praised the “Kosovo spirit,” saying he had that certain feeling when he first saw Kelmendi years ago that “one day she would deliver and she would achieve the highest result, Olympic gold.” To recognize Kosovo, he said, “was very fair and very right for the sport.”

Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008; Serbia does not recognize Kosovo. 

In the sports landscape, meanwhile, Kosovo this year became a member of the soccer governing institutions FIFA and UEFA; it will compete in 2018 World Cup qualifying. 

Kosovo sent eight athletes to Rio. Besim Hasani, president of the Kosovo Olympic Committee, had said earlier this summer, “For the first time, we are feeling what it means to be equal among all the other athletes.”

Amid all the dignitaries and personalities, it was the way Kelmendi handled herself in the aftermath that will be part of the story they tell 20 years from now. She instantly became, and forever will be, a hero in Kosovo, a chapter in that emerging country’s national story. Yet in every regard Kelmendi totally proved gracious, humble and thankful — to her mother, coach, team, nation and the sport itself.

She told reporters, “People, especially kids, in Kosovo look to me as a hero. I just proved to them that even after the war, even after we survived a war, if they want something, they can have it. If they want to be Olympic champions, they can be. Even if we come from a small country, poor country.”

Later, in a lengthy interview, she said, “Growing up in judo, you learn how to have respect for everything and everybody. You have a good coordination with your body and with your mind. So, I don’t know — if you don’t become a champion, at least you become a great, great person, and I think that’s what all parents want for their kids.”

She also said, “I’m not the kind of athlete to say, ‘Oh, now I’m a star.’” She said, “I’m not like this.”

This is why the scene at judo is so winning. It produces, with regularity, new stars who get it.

Not just Kelmendi.

On Monday, Brazil’s Rafaela Silva, who hails from the nearby “City of God” favela, won gold in the women’s 57kg (125 lbs) category. This made for Brazil’s first gold of its home Games.

Swimming and judo have, through the first days of the Rio Olympics, proven the two venues consistently full, each venue vibrating to the sounds of thousands of fans. When Silva won, the Rio dojo, Carioca 2 Arena, just about flew up to the crescent moon that has been hanging in the winter Brazilian sky. 

Vizer told Carlos Nuzman, the honorary IOC member from Brazil who has for years overseen the Rio 2016 effort, that Silva won two gold medals — one for real, the other for the good work she is bound to do going forward.

Over the first four days of the Rio 2016 judo tourney, 20 different nations won medals, among them Georgia, Mongolia, Slovenia and the United Arab Emirates.

On Tuesday, Yarden Gerbi won bronze in the women’s 63kg (139 lbs) category — the first medal won by an Israeli woman since Barcelona 1992.

After track and field (next week) and swimming (ongoing now), at the Olympics judo is far and away the sport the world does, and comes to see. The Rio Games brought together 390 fighters from 136 nations. Of the 10 athletes on the Refugee Olympic Team, two are judoka — Congo-born Popole Misenga (men’s 90kg/198 lbs) and Yolande Bukasa (70kg/154 lbs), both of whom train here in Rio at the famed Flavio Canto institute. They are due to fight Wednesday under the direction of the Brazilian coaching legend Geraldo Bernandes.

All this has happened entirely outside the Olympic beat favored by almost everyone else in the English-speaking media: American, British, Canadian, elsewhere. 

But there are lessons from the tatami that could and should be taken away — embraced — everywhere.

In Kelmendi’s weight class, Japan’s three-time world champion, Misato Nakamura, won one of the two bronze medals, beating Brazil’s Erika Miranda with a golden score. Russia’s Natalia Kuziutina won the other bronze.

No jeers. Just applause all around.

On Tuesday, in the men’s 81kg (178 lbs) class, Russia’s Khasan Khalmurzaev defeated Travis Stevens of the United States for gold. Immediately after the ceremonial bows that conclude every judo match, the two competitors hugged each other.

Russian and American. Rivals, yes. But friends.

As Stevens explained afterward, he trains with the Russians, calling the relationships he has forged a “brotherhood.”

He said, “You know, the Russian team has been really kind to me over the years. They invite me out to their national training camps. I stay there for two weeks here and there. So I have a bond with everybody I compete with. We bleed together, sweat together, go through all the trials and tribulations it takes to be an Olympian, as athletes.

“Whether he wins or I win, I’m happy for him.”

A year ago, Vizer, who at the time was also head of the umbrella group called SportAccord, delivered a speech at the opening of the annual SportAccord convention that was hugely critical of Bach, the IOC president, as well as several key elements of the Olympic system.

Vizer ended up stepping down from SportAccord. The IOC sought in some ways to simply freeze him out.

That didn’t work, however, because behind the scenes many influential Olympic personalities made plain that they agreed with what Vizer had said — just not the way he said it.

Who was that sitting together for an extended period during Sunday’s fights? Vizer and Bach. 

Who, in a clear public sign of rapprochement, awarded the medals to Kelmendi and the others in that category? Vizer and Bach.

Who else was in the house on Sunday beyond the president of Kosovo? Among others, Queen Mathilde and King Philippe of Belgium; the president of the republic of Georgia, Giorgi Margvelashvili; Russian Olympic committee president Alexander Zhukov; Patrick Hickey of Ireland, a leading member of the IOC’s policy-making executive board; and Mario Pescante, a senior IOC personality from Italy.

On Saturday, another long list of dignitaries that included IOC member Princess Anne of Great Britain; Sebastian Coe, head of the track and field governing body, the International Association of Athletics Federations; and Prince Albert of Monaco, also a longtime IOC member.

On Monday? Jacques Rogge, Bach’s predecessor as IOC president.

At a special IJF dinner late Monday honoring Kelmendi? Tony Castro of Cuba, Fidel’s son the doctor, who played a key role in getting baseball back into the Tokyo 2020 Games.

There they raised a toast to Kelmendi.

Four years ago, Kelmendi competed in the London Games for Albania. She was defeated in the second round.

In the years since, Kosovo gained recognition and so do Kelmendi, who earned three European and two world titles since 2013.

Other countries — you might readily guess which nations are in the business of enticing athletes — offered Kelmendi all manner of incentives to relocate.

“I have had some crazy offers from other countries,” she said, “to take millions to stay wherever I [might] want.

If she switched citizenships, she said, “I can have a house in New York or London, Tokyo,” adding, “everything that I want, I just have to say yes.”

She added a moment later, “I just wanted to do something for my country. I was young but I could see that my country needed a big representative in the world.”

She also said, “Believe me, there are no millions, there are no monies in the world that can make me feel how I feel today. 

“You can have millions. You can have billions. It doesn’t mean that people will respect you.”