Sports aren’t usually part of the conversation when — or even if — most people talk about Kosovo. Words like “war crimes” and “former Yugoslavia” often come up in relation to this small, contested state.
So how does curling fit in with a country that currently has no curling clubs or ice to play on and has attended only one Olympics in its nine-year existence?
Like most things curling, there’s a Canadian involved.
Peter Andersen had just graduated from college in April 2016 when he was invited to Kosovo by his uncle, who works there for the United Nations. Andersen eventually got a job with a non-governmental organization in Pristina, the country’s capital, but felt a longing for something he’d done since he was a kid growing up in Kingston, Ont.
“My mom likes to tell the story where, when I was born, the first place she went from the hospital, in between home, was the curling club,” Andersen says. “ was my first year not being in a country that has curling clubs everywhere.”
In the two years since his move to Pristina, Andersen set up a “street curling” demonstration for young Kosovars, partnered with an American university in Kosovo to start a curling program and attended the World Curling Federation’s congress as a representative for the Kosovo Curling Federation.
You read that correctly — a country where rocks and brooms have no additional connotations has a curling federation.
Andersen says it was established in 2012 as part of Kosovo’s bid to become recognized by the International Olympic Committee, but had fallen dormant. He met with the federation’s president, who also happens to be in charge of Kosovo’s Olympic Committee, who immediately offered him a position as an advisor.
Taking it to the streets
After securing $ 12,000 US in development assistance funding from the World Curling Federation, Andersen bought a street curling set from Rock Solid Productions in Toronto to use for the sport’s unofficial debut.
“It’s kind of like a really ridiculously heavy plastic carpet that rolls out, and that’s your curling sheet,” Andersen says. “The rocks themselves have three coasters on them. The way that you curl the rock, it will actually move.”
Andersen says street curling was a hit with schoolkids in Pristina, with hundreds trying out the modified version of the sport last summer.(Celia Russell)
Andersen set up the “ice” on a pedestrian boulevard in Pristina as part of Kosovo Sport and Environment Day in June. He estimates that about 250 children tried curling for the first time that day, plus several volunteers who were intrigued by what they saw.
“You had all these kids running back each time trying to throw more rocks and you also had people along the side, gathering along the fence because they had no idea what they were staring at,” Andersen says.
Andersen has also set up street curling events at Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) Kosovo to introduce the sport to more people. The university also stores the nearly 500-kilogram sheet.
“It’s kind of been a hit because for the most part you just have your dance and your drinks and that kind of thing, but now there’s an activity to play on the side which just happens to be curling,” he says.
Challenges bigger than sports
Funding and the absence of proper equipment are obstacles for growing the sport, but Kosovo’s ongoing issues run far deeper. Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008, a move which the former Yugoslav republic does not recognize.
“The problem is that you’re trying to normalize relations between two states that are inherently abnormal,” says Robert Austin, an associate professor at the University of Toronto’s Centre for European, Russian and Eurasian Studies.
Their complicated, contentious relationship reached a boiling point when Serbian special forces cracked down against ethnic Albanian separatists in the late 1990s. War crimes and ethnic cleansing were committed during the bloody Kosovo conflict, as well as controversial airstrikes by NATO forces.
Austin says Kosovo is “always on the verge of being a failed state.” The Brussels Agreement of 2013, despite not being signed by either Kosovo or Serbia, has helped with the process of normalization, which remains “very much an up-and-down process.”
It’s still early, but there’s the possibility that a curling program like the one Andersen wants to establish at RIT Kosovo could be a bridge to better relations between Kosovars and Serbs.(Peter Andersen)
Serbia does have curling facilities, but Andersen acknowledges it would be difficult to get the countries together for a bonspiel.
“I met the Serbian representative at the congress, but I kind of hid my representation badge from him because I wasn’t too sure how he’d react if he knew I was the Kosovo representative,” he says.
Could curling serve as a start to better relations? It’s certainly premature to suggest so, but Austin sees the social nature of the sport as conducive to a rapprochement.
“This is where we need to see more bridges being built among the young people, and sports strikes me as something that is both easy and makes a tremendous amount of sense,” Austin says.
Andersen’s next goal is to actually get Kosovars on the ice. At the World Curling Congress in September, he connected with the Hungarian curling federation’s president and booked some time at the end of March to go to Budapest for a clinic run by Canadian Olympic curling coach Jim Waite. Andersen attended Waite’s high-performance curling camp for five years and has been in contact with him throughout his time in Kosovo.
Waite’s hope is that, after Kosovars are introduced to curling, “they will go back and they will talk to others and hopefully that will transfer.”
Andersen has dedicated himself entirely to establishing curling in Kosovo, even quitting his job to focus on it full-time. It’s a daunting challenge, but the 24-year-old has Waite’s confidence and support.
“This has to start somewhere, and what Peter’s trying to do is amazing,” Waite says.
“He’s driven to make this thing work.”
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