12-year-old Syrian Hend Zaza, rose above the challenges posed by civil war to make her way to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and make history, by becoming the youngest Olympian to participate not just in this particular edition, but the youngest one since 1968.
Syria had a small 6-person delegation to grace the Olympic Stadium during the opening ceremony. But what attracted attention was the holding of their flag aloft by a very young, 12-year-old Table Tennis player, by the name of Hend Zaza. She is the youngest competitor across all sports at Tokyo 2020. The youngest recorded athlete at an Olympic Games was 10-year-old Greek gymnast Dimitrios Loundras who competed in the first Modern Olympics held in Athens in 1896 and won a team bronze medal.
On her Olympic debut, Zaza went up against Liu Jia of Austria in the preliminary women’s singles round. Unfortunately, she could not pull off a victory against the 39-year-old, 6-time Olympian, who won the match 11-4, 11-9, 11-3, 11-5. But her raw talent was on display for the world to take notice and it clearly showed the bright future of this girl that lies ahead.
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 all of her experience to make Zaza commit faults in her forehand and earned a comfortable victory.
Liu, who had already competed in 3 separate editions of the Olympics before Zaza had even been born said after the match, “Yesterday I asked my daughter: ‘Do you know your mother is playing against someone two years older than you?’ Her first response was: ‘Then you better not lose!’ I said: ‘Don’t give me pressure!’”
Hend Zaza has already gone on against far older opponents before as well. She had achieved her qualification for the Tokyo 2020 by winning the Western Asia Olympic Qualification tournament, when at the age of 11 she ousted Mariana Sahakian who was 42 years old.
Zaza has also had to champion many other obstacles on her path to becoming an Olympian. Hailing from the city of Hama, she endured innumerable power cuts during her training with the war raging outside. She has had to struggle to acquire paddles and even a ball, just so that she could train on a concrete floor, and on worn out tables. The war often made it impossible for her to travel to international competitions. Even if she somehow did have the opportunity to, the acquisition of visas to physically reach the competitions, was yet another hurdle. However, the young powerhouse never let go of her big dreams. Zaza wants to be both a World and an Olympic champion in Table Tennis. But simultaneously she wants to continue her studies to become a pharmacist or a lawyer, later on in life.
“For the last five years I’ve been through many different experiences, especially when there was the war happening around the country, with the postponement with funding for the Olympics, and it was very tough. But I had to fight for it and this is my message to everyone who wishes to have the same situation. 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 the 2020 Tokyo Olympics is another huge step forward for Zaza in her pursuit of her lofty life goals.