RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — Majlinda Kelmendi stood on the podium with a wide smile on her face.
A gold medal hung around her neck, and not just any gold medal — the first one ever for Kosovo. Kelmendi went to Rio with Kosovo’s first Olympic team, and she knew she had to deliver in the women’s 52-kg judo competition to make sure her nation didn’t go home empty-handed.
“I was really ready for this competition,” Kelmendi said. “It was the first time that Kosovo was in the Olympics. I wanted so badly to win.”
While so much attention is paid to the top of the medals table at the Olympics, where the athletic powerhouses like the United States and China practically need to charter another plane to bring home all the gold, silver and bronze they accumulate, there is an equally spirited competition at the bottom, where dozens of smaller countries hold out hopes of just getting their hands on one.
Newspapers back home praised Kelmendi’s “historic achievement” Sunday. Hidilyn Diaz, whose weightlifting silver ended a 20-year medal drought for the Philippines, received a personal message of congratulations from President Rodrigo Duterte, who told her she brought honor to the country.
They are not global stars on par with Michael Phelps or Usain Bolt. But to the success-starved countries they represent, they may be even more important.
Coming into the Rio Games, more than 70 nations with National Olympic Committees had never won a medal of any kind. Others, like India, very rarely reach the podium. So they come to these Olympics with very few chances for glory, their collective focus pinned on one team, or one athlete, to break through.
Fiji plays in the rugby semifinals Thursday in a sport that has returned to the Olympics after a 92-year absence.
“We need pressure. Island life is a nice, chilled and laid-back one so if we take things too easy the boys just drop off,” said Fiji rugby coach Ben Ryan, who represents a country that has never won a medal of any color. “We are embracing that pressure at the moment. The more the better. This is the strongest 12 I’ve ever had. There are absolutely no excuses not to perform.”
India has won just two medals since 1964, including one for men’s field hockey in Moscow in 1980. This year’s team is looking to restore the country’s standing as one of the world’s elite.
“That’s my life. It’s a dream,” captain Sreejesh Parattu said. “If you look at the Indian history, it is a very prestigious thing for our country.”
And when they finally do make it happen, the emotions can be overwhelming. Diaz openly wept after winning the silver medal in the 58kg class of weightlifting. It was the country’s first medal in any sport since the Atlanta Games in 1996 and helped her overcome failures in Beijing and London.
“I have tried so hard. I have stumbled many times,” Diaz said. “I wanted to quit, but now all of my sacrifices have paid off.”
The Associated Press issued predictions prior to the beginning of the games for the medal winners in each competition. The Philippines didn’t have an athlete listed, but Diaz came through. In return, she’ll receive nearly $53,000, per a law enacted in 2001 that rewards successful Olympians.
Others predicted to medal win from nations that rarely reach the podium include Ghirmay Ghebreslassie from Eritrea in the men’s marathon and Francine Niyonsaba of Burundi in the women’s 800 meters. Both nations have just one medal in their histories.
That’s the feeling so many others are chasing. They don’t have vast financial resources to help pave their ways to gold. They also don’t have dozens of other teammates with prime chances for the podium to reduce the pressure.
It’s all on them to deliver.
“For me the Olympic Games is all about winning, nothing else,” said India men’s field hockey coach Roelant Wouter Oltmans. “Many years ago someone else said something different, it’s about participation. But nowadays in the modern Olympic Games it’s all about winning and that’s also why I went to India and accepted the challenge when they offered me to see if there is any possibility to come close to the history of Indian hockey.”