Izmir Smajlaj claims Albania’s first ever European indoor gold medal
TIRANA, March 6 – Izmir Smajlaj was crowned European long jump champion at the Belgrade Indoor Championships last weekend as he jumped 8.08 metres to break his own national record, beating Swedish favourite Michel Torneus.
The gold medal, the first ever for Albania at a European indoor event, came one week after the 23-year-old champion claimed gold for Albania at the Balkan Indoor, a test event for Belgrade’s European Indoor Championships.
“What a last jump it proved to be as Smajlaj, who was ninth at last year’s European Championships in Amsterdam, amazingly reached 8.08m, the same as Torneus, to break his own national record of 7.98m,” wrote the European Athletics portal about Smajlaj who came first thanks to fewer fouls compared to Sweden’s Torneus.
Speaking to reporters after the victory, Smajlaj said the gold medal was a dream come true for him.
“It was a very tough race, but I finally made it. I wouldn’t call it a surprise as my goal was to be crowned champion. I have new targets for other medals at the London World Championships,” said Smajlaj.
The Albanian athlete was applauded by fans at the Belgrade stadium but received criticism by some Serbian media for his crossed hands gesture symbolizing the double-headed eagle of Albania’s flag, sometimes also alluded to a Greater Albania symbol in the Balkan region.
“To be sincere, I had predicted to make the eagle sign if I was crowned champion. I would still like to give my thanks to the Belgrade people who received me so well,” said Smajlaj.
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.
Meanwhile, Albania’s middle-distance runner Luiza Gega finished fifth in the women’s 1,500 metres after claiming three medals ahead of the Belgrade European championships.
The 28-year-old Albanian middle-distance runner, the only Albanian athlete to directly qualify in the 2016 Rio Olympics, is best at 3,000 m steeplechase, having finished second at the European Athletics Championships in Amsterdam ahead of the 2016 Rio Olympics.
Both Smajlaj and Gega will now train for next August’s World Athletics Championships in London where competition will be much tougher.
Athletics is emerging as a new success in Albania where weightlifting and wrestling have been the traditional best performing Olympic disciplines, but poor financial support to athletes and improper training infrastructure remain a huge barrier.