Albanian jumper crowned Balkan champion
- "I want to thank all the Belgrade people for their hospitality. At the time the Albanian flag was raised, everybody stood up, applauding. I didn't really expect this, but it happened,” Smajlaj said
TIRANA, Feb. 27 – Albania’s Izmir Smajlaj has been crowned a Balkan long jump champion at a Belgrade event ahead of European Indoor Championships in Serbia. The 23-year Albanian athlete jumped 7.98 metres to claim gold for Albania at the Balkan Indoor, a test event for Belgrade’s early March European Indoor Championships.
The promising athlete who last year also represented Albania at the Rio Olympics is optimistic the result that set a new national record is a good omen for a top three finish at the European games this weekend.
“A 7.98 m jump at the Balkan championship is a very promising result. I believe I can make it to the top three with an 8 m jump considering my physical condition and shape,” Smajlaj told reporters upon arriving in his native town of Shkodra, northern Albania at weekend.
Smajlaj, who jumped 16 cm to 45 cm longer compared to his Romanian and Greek rivals finishing second and third respectively, with face much tougher competition at European level, apparently from Swedish and British athletes dominating long jump races in the past few years.
The Albanian athlete said his victory was well-received in Belgrade, something which he didn’t expect following a previous incident in a football match back in late 2014.
“I want to thank all the Belgrade people for their hospitality. At the time the Albanian flag was raised, everybody stood up, applauding. I didn’t really expect this, but it happened,” Smajlaj said.
“I didn’t expect to win. I faced tough opponents but was in good physical condition and really hopeful of winning. In addition, I was in Belgrade and it was my dream to fly the Albanian flag there and this encouraged me more,” he added.
In October 2014, a drone with Albanian nationalistic and patriotic symbols flying over the Partizan stadium in Belgrade in the midst of a Serbia-Albania Euro 2016 qualifier put Albania-Serbia relations into a Cold War status quo, but the situation was quickly overcome with high level visits and exchanges by civil society organizations. At a forum on Albania-Serbia relations organized last December by the Albanian Institute for International Studies (AIIS), one of the country’s top think tanks, diplomats and business representatives described 2016 as the best year of cooperation between the two countries in the past seven decades.
A biennial indoor track and field competition, the 2017 European Athletics Indoor Championships will be held in Belgrade from March 3 to 5.
Albania’s middle-distance runner Luiza Gega is also set to make a good performance at the Games after grabbing three medals in one week competing at the European Athletics Indoor Meetings in Paris, Ostrava and Istanbul.
Running is emerging as a new success in Albania where weightlifting and wrestling have been the traditional best performing Olympic disciplines, however, poor financial support to athletes and improper training infrastructure remain a huge barrier.