Syria’s Hend Zaza, 12, rose above the challenges posed by civil war to make her way to the Tokyo Olympics and become the youngest Olympian to participate not just in this edition, but the youngest since 1968.
Syria had a small six-person delegation to grace the Olympic Stadium during the opening ceremony. But what attracted attention was the 12-year-old table tennis player holding their flag aloft. Zaza is the youngest competitor across all sport in Tokyo. The youngest recorded athlete at an Olympic Games was 10-year-old Greek gymnast Dimitrios Loundras who competed in the first Modern Olympics in Athens in 1896 and won a team bronze.
On her Olympic debut, Zaza went up against Liu Jia of Austria in the preliminary women’s singles round. She could not pull off a victory against the 39-year-old, 6-time Olympian, but her raw talent was for the world to take note.
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All through the four games she played, the force that Zaza generated in her heavy, potent topspin backhands, frequently breaching the veteran’s defence, left everyone spellbound. Having lost the opening game, she raced to a 6-2 lead in the second one. But the Austrian used her experience to make Zaza commit faults in her forehand for a comfortable victory.
Liu, who had competed in three Olympics before Zaza was born, said, “I asked my daughter, ‘Do you know your mother is playing against someone two years older than you?’ Her response was, ‘Then you better not lose!’ I said: ‘Don’t give me pressure!’”
Zaza has gone up against older opponents before as well. She achieved her qualification for Tokyo by winning the Western Asia Olympic Qualification tournament when she ousted Mariana Sahakian, 42, as an 11-year-old.
Zaza has had to beat other obstacles on her path to becoming an Olympian. Hailing from the city of Hama, she endured innumerable power cuts during training with the war raging outside. She had to struggle to acquire paddles and even balls so that she could train on a concrete floor and worn-out tables. The war often made it impossible for her to travel to international competitions. Even if she somehow did have the opportunity, acquisition of visas was yet another hurdle. However, the young powerhouse never let go of her big dreams.
Zaza wants to be a world and Olympic champion. But simultaneously wants to continue her studies to become a pharmacist or a lawyer.
“For the last five years, I’ve been through many different experiences, especially when there was the war happening around the country. And with the postponement of funding for the Olympics, it was very tough. I had to fight for it, and this is my message to everyone who wishes to dream big. Fight for your dreams, try hard, regardless of the difficulties that you’re having, and you will reach your goal.”
Hend Zaza might have lost the match, but she won millions of hearts across the globe who tuned in to the Olympics and watched her match. Her participation in Tokyo is another huge step in her pursuit of lofty life goals.