Tokyo 2020: 12-year-old Syrian, Hend Zaza makes history as youngest athlete at Olympic Games
If one of the great features of the Olympics is the stories of the athletes who have given so much to get there, then there can be few more remarkable tales than that of Hend Zaza.
The Syrian is set to be the youngest competitor at Tokyo 2020 having earned table tennis qualification for the Olympics by winning the West Asia qualifying tournament last year at only 11 years old.
In the final of that tournament Zaza beat Mariana Sahakian, nearly four times her age, of the Lebanon, and has now won Syrian national titles in all four categories in which she is eligible, including the senior title, having started playing at the age of five.
“I have very rarely seen a player at this age play with such joy and train with such intensity as Zaza,” said Eva Jeler, an experienced former national German table tennis coach.
“She never walked to pick up the ball – she ran. While of course her technique needed and still needs improvement, her determination, resilience and will to play and win are (almost) a guarantee for future success.”
The 12-year-old has lived much of her life in a country in the grips of an intense civil war, with the Syrian unrest that began more than a decade ago during the Arab Spring of 2011 displacing nearly 11 million people by March 2015, according to Al-Jazeera. According to her coach, Zaza has been able to play in only two or three external matches a year since beginning her career due to the war.
It is thus remarkable that Zaza – who was born in Hama, which is about 30 miles north of the city of Homs that was devastated during a three-year siege that ended in 2014 – was in-line to become the fifth youngest Olympian in history before the pandemic forced the Games’ postponement to 2021.
She will be just the second Syrian to compete in table tennis at the Olympics, following Heba Allejji. Zaza is, however, the first from her country to qualify for the competition via the conventional route; Allejji was an invitee by the Tripartite Commission to the women’s singles at Rio de Janeiro 2016.
“This qualification tournament was really difficult for us, but we are really proud to be at the Olympic Games for the second time ever; this time, however, is completely different as we achieved it through the qualification procedures,” explained Bassam Khalil, president of the Syrian Table Tennis Federation.
“The conflict in Syria in previous years prevented us from participating in many events, but we tried our best to take part and keep table tennis in our country as active as we can.”
Nimble hands and fast eyes should be an asset in a game of intense concentration and accuracy, and Zaza will certainly have the exuberance of youth on her side. Regardless of her result, when her women’s singles campaign begins on the first weekend of the Olympics at the Tokyo Metropolitan Gymnasium, Zaza’s very presence at Tokyo 2020 will be a victory for the sport.
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