Romela Begaj created history when she became the first female Albanian to win gold in a weightlifting world championship and broke down when she realised her feat.
Living in a rented house, without income to supplement her training and food expenses, the 28-year-old won one of the most important trophies for the country.
“The emotions I was going through were unprecedented and unforgettable,” Begaj told Al Jazeera. “It was a tough fight against world champions and Olympic medallist but I manage to make it.”
European Weightlifting Championships
An Academy of Sports graduate, Begaj trains in a gym in Tirana which is not more than 40 square metres. She has no life or health insurance and does not get medical benefits.
After a knee injury, she was treated in Greece and had to bear all the costs with the help of family and friends.
It is the passion for the sport that has kept the former circus performer stand up to competition in tough conditions at home and away. There are no welcoming officials upon her return from international competitions in the past and she has never received a prize from the government.
However, with the desire to leave an indelible mark in the national history, Begaj continued to fight for her country and the red and black flag.
“I had offers to represent other states and many times I was attracted because I have not had proper treatment in Albania,” Begaj added. “But for me it was always a pleasure and honour to raise the Albanian flag. That is the most important thing.
“To promote the name of all Albanians even though it is not easy to fight against the whole world and come out first.”
Begaj performed with Tirana circus in gymnastics, trampoline among other circus disciplines. Due to the financial problems, her father had to emigrate to Greece in order to support the family.
“I was a girl with strong ego and wanted to live an honourable life without the help of my family. Being from a poor family and seeing their suffering, I thought that I could repay their efforts with my work.”
In 2005, aged just 18, she took up weightlifting and, after only three months of training, she got a bronze medal at the Mediterranean Games.
Begaj did compete in the 2008 Beijing Olympics but tragedy struck just two weeks ahead of the event.
“The greatest sorrow for me has been in 2008 when, two weeks before the Olympics, my father died. That was a difficult moment but despite that, I came sixth in the Olympics.”
Officials take note
After the result in Kazakhstan this year where she won gold, Minister of Education and Sports Lindita Nikolla organised a reception at the airport. After expressing gratitude for Albanian weightlifters, she highlighted that the government was determined to open a new route to Albanian sport.
She promised to Begaj that the authorities will change the decision that prevents “the reward she deserves”.
Begaj’s medal brought attention to the current sport law in Albania that was approved in 2011. According to that, Romela will not get any financial benefit since she competed only in snatch. The law offers benefits only for the weightlifters that compete in two styles.
I was a girl with strong ego and wanted to live an honourable life without the help of my family
“The diamond of our sport, Romela Begaj, is the first woman to bring a gold medal to Albania,” said Ilir Kulla, vice president of the AWF.
“As the federation, we will ask institutions to recognise merits of the athletes and medallists through decorations but also financial compensation. Albania is a country that has problems in transition, but there are conditions to support those few sportsman.”
The AWF will require amendment of the law. Apart from a change of the decision to award the medals and support for future championships, it will demand a special status for medallists.
“The Albanian legislation in relation to sport, unfortunately, is not the best,” added Kulla.
“In terms of small investment and difficult conditions of sport, financial support is not just a personal issue of Begaj but it is a way to give the possibility of affirming and strengthening the Albanian sport throughout the world.
“It is a way to inspire young people to commit to sport because it is possible that even from a small country like Albania, there may emerge world champions.”
The federation is seeking alternative ways for athletes to gain financial and social benefits and also helping them find jobs at public institutions.
Three golden medals and one silver won in Kazakhstan is the best result achieved by Albanian players at a World Championship.
This extraordinary result achieved by Albanian weightlifters will enable them to go to at Olympics 2016 in a team of eight people, six males and two females portraying a bright future despite the struggle.