Alpine skier Albin Tahiri, Kosovo’s sole representative on their Olympic debut at PyeongChang 2018, has two very good reasons to celebrate as the first week of the XXIII Olympic Winter Games draws to a close. Having become his country’s first ever Winter Olympian when he finished 37th in the Alpine combined on 13 February, today he celebrates his 29th birthday.
Tahiri is not your average sporting hero. As Kosovo’s one and only athlete at PyeongChang 2018, he naturally had the honour of being the Balkan nation’s flagbearer at the Opening Ceremony. “I was so proud to be part of that historic moment,” he said. “There was a lot of emotion and though the weather was really cold, my heart felt so warm.”
In 2008, Tahiri, who was 18 at the time, chose to represent the nation of his father’s birth rather than Slovenia, the country of his birth. “Slovenian is my maternal language,” he said. “I grew up close to the Austrian border, in a town called Slovenj Gradec, and I had the good fortune to train with top Slovenian downhillers like Rok Perko and Bostjan Kline.”
“I speak better English than Albanian,” Tahiri added, on the topic of his command of Kosovo’s native language. “But when there’s a conversation involving several people, I can understand what the others are saying.”
His lack of fluency in the language has not stopped him receiving message after message from Kosovars living all over the world: “A lot of people have sent me friend requests on social media, especially in the USA, which makes me very proud, and they often come from people who have done very well for themselves overseas.”
The skier has also had words of encouragement from Kosovar sporting icon and judo star Majlinda Kelmendi, who won the country’s very first Olympic gold medal in the women’s 52kg category at Rio 2016.
Tahiri is one of the 271 athletes to have received an International Olympic Committee (IOC) scholarship through the Olympic Solidarity programme, with his country one of 60 to benefit from it. The pioneering Kosovar has entered all five men’s Alpine skiing events at PyeongChang 2018, though he specialises in the speed events (downhill, super-G and Alpine combined).
His ambition was to finish in the top 50 of one of his races, one he fulfilled at the very first attempt, in the Alpine combined on Tuesday 13 February, when he finished a remarkable 37th. And today for his birthday he reached that goal, to when he finished 50th in the Men's downhill. Though a regular on the FIS circuit (the third tier of the Alpine skiing pyramid), his membership of the Kosovo Ski Federation earned him a place at the 2017 FIS Alpine World Ski Championships in St Moritz (SUI) and the highly prestigious downhill race in Wengen (SUI). His performances at the Worlds were entirely respectable. Forty-first in the combined, he placed 51st in the downhill, eight seconds behind the winner, Beat Feuz of Switzerland, who won bronze today.
The day job
What makes those performances all the more creditable is that Tahiri is an out-and-out amateur, and over the last few years has managed to fit in his sporting pursuits around his dental studies. Even so, his presence at PyeongChang 2018 has not gone unnoticed in Kosovo, with the country’s president, Hashim Thaçi, visiting the Olympic Village the day before the Opening Ceremony to offer the athlete a few words of encouragement.
While Tahiri has his eyes firmly fixed on the pistes of Jeongseong, he also has those two very special dates to celebrate with the two other members of the Kosovo National Olympic Committee delegation at PyeongChang 2018 – the press officer and the chef de mission, his flatmates in the Olympic Village.