RIO DE JANEIRO, Aug 7 (Reuters) - Majlinda Kelmendi moved closer to making history at the Rio Games on Sunday as she advanced to the semifinal round in women’s judo, aiming to become the first athlete from Kosovo to win an Olympic medal.
Rio marks the first Olympics at which athletes are competing under the flag of Kosovo, which proclaimed independence from Serbia in 2008.
Many from the small Balkan country, which was accepted as a member of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in 2014, had previously participated under another country’s flag including Kelmendi herself.
The two-times world champion, who was Kosovo’s flag bearer at Friday’s opening ceremony and is competing in the 52-kilo category, represented Albania at the London Games in 2012 though she went home without a medal.
“Having a competitor who is a very serious (contender) for taking a medal today, that’s something that’s really unbelievable,” Agron Kuka, president of the Kosovo Judo Federation, told Reuters.
“I think she will make history by taking the first ever Olympic medal,” he said.
Amid cheers of “Majlinda!” from the largely Brazilian crowd, Kelmendi burst out of the gate and in her first match won by ippon - judo’s equivalent of a knockout - after just 25 seconds, before winning in the quarter finals on penalties.
Later in the afternoon, Kelmendi will face third-seeded Misato Nakamura of Japan, who blew past both opponents by ippon in the early rounds.
In the other semifinal match, China’s Ma Yingnan will face Odette Giuffrida of Italy.
Top-ranked Andreea Chitu of Romania lost her quarter final match, the second straight day the top women’s seed was upset, and will have to battle for bronze in the repechage rounds.
Brazil’s Erika Miranda was also beaten in the last eight, keeping the host country’s gold medal hopes in judo on hold after a disappointing outing Saturday in the 48-kilo category for London Olympic champion Sarah Menezes.
Tensions persist between Kosovo and Serbia, which has not recognised Kosovo’s declaration of independence.
Serbia has reportedly advised its athletes in Rio to withdraw from any medal ceremonies if they have to share the podium with athletes from Kosovo, although there were no Serbian judokas participating on Sunday.
Kosovo won further sporting recognition in May when it was accepted as a member of soccer’s governing body FIFA.
Reporting by Chris Gallagher; Editing by Brian Homewood