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8 Athletes Set To Compete In First Olympics For Team Kosovo

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There will be two new flags flying high at the Olympic Games in Rio. For the first time, the countries of South Sudan and Kosovo have been recognized by the International Olympic Committee. South Sudan's team is made up of three runners. Kosovo, which was a province of the former Yugoslavia, will have eight athletes competing. NPR's Melissa Block is in Rio and caught up with the members of the newly minted team Kosovo.

MELISSA BLOCK, BYLINE: If you want to know what genuine, unadulterated Olympic pride sounds like, just listen to first timer Lum Zhaveli.

LUM ZHAVELI: We're happy. We're finally here, and we are equal with everyone.

BLOCK: You're equal with everyone.

ZHAVELI: Yeah, like, everyone is equal here.

BLOCK: I find him at the Athletes Village sporting a team Kosovo jersey and an irrepressible grin. For Kosovo, just eight athletes strong, this is huge.

ZHAVELI: We're a small team, but we're quite proud. We managed to be here, and we hope to win a medal - like, a medal or two.

BLOCK: A medal or two...

ZHAVELI: Yeah.

BLOCK: You're aiming high.

ZHAVELI: Yeah.

BLOCK: Kosovo has a good shot at a medal in women's judo. Majlinda Kelmendi is considered a favorite. She's ranked first in the world in her weight class. Kosovo also has athletes competing in shooting, cycling, track. And there's Lum Zhaveli, 26 years old, who will race in the 50-meter freestyle swim, a blistering sprint.

ZHAVELI: We swim fast, and then we die early.

BLOCK: You swim fast and die early.

ZHAVELI: Yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

BLOCK: Zhaveli is the only Kosovo athlete to arrive in Rio so far. And even though he has to share his small room in the Athletes Village, share it with the office for the Kosovo team's chief of mission, he's not complaining.

ZHAVELI: No, no. If I can help them, I will be happy. So that's cool.

BLOCK: His country's path to the Olympics has been complicated - a victim of Balkan conflict. After a war with Serbia in the late 1990s, Kosovo declared its independence in 2008. Serbia refused to recognize that and strongly opposed Kosovo's bid to gain Olympic recognition. But now after years of diplomatic jousting, Kosovo is in. What took so long?

ZHAVELI: I guess politics. I mean I try to stay away from them.

BLOCK: For Kosovo's swimming coach, Enver Hairedini, this Olympic debut is the fulfillment of a dream and worth the wait.

ENVER HAIREDINI: (Speaking Albanian).

BLOCK: "Of course it's a big dream for us," he tells me. "We've been waiting for this for so long - to be part of the biggest sports organization in the world. But," he says, "even though we got recognized a bit late, it's still OK."

These days, every time swimmer Lum Zhaveli opens Facebook, he's flooded with messages of support from friends and fans in Kosovo overjoyed that they'll see their country competing on the Olympic stage for the very first time.

ZHAVELI: No one is expecting us to do a miracle now. Everyone just wants us to have fun, maybe do our best, maybe do lifetime best.

BLOCK: Zhaveli says he's already thinking about helping the next generation of athletes from Kosovo who will compete in the 2020 Summer Games in Tokyo. Melissa Block, NPR News, Rio de Janeiro. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.