A 12-year-old Syrian fights for her dream at the Olympics

TOKYO — This being summer and Hend Zaza being 12 years old, you could certainly qualify her activities Saturday as pretty fun, perhaps even typical for some lucky kids.

She was on a trip. She had stayed out late the night before, way past normal. She was hanging out with a lot of friends, or at least people who have the same interest. She even got to play a game of her favorite sport: table tennis.

It just happened to be at the Olympics.

Yes, there was a 12-year-old Syrian girl competing in table tennis here. Twelve. She’s the youngest Olympian at these Games and the fifth-youngest Olympian on record.

If it hadn’t been for Covid pushing the Tokyo Olympics back a year, she would have competed at age 11. How young is Zaza? She was born on Jan. 1, 2009.

So what’s your excuse?

Zaza is tall for her age, so it wasn’t like she was barely peering above the table. Then again, her opponent, Jia Liu of Austria, at age 39, is three times her age. This is her sixth Olympics.

Zaza wasn’t even alive for the first three — Athens, London or Beijing.

It wasn’t much of a contest — Liu swept to victory 11-4, 11-9, 11-3 and 11-5. That wasn’t the point though, even if Zaza’s eyes were red and full of tears after.

“I was hoping for a win in the match,” she said. “I was hoping for better play.”

One day she’ll realize just being here was enough. The night before she’d been out late — is being the Syrian flag bearer at the Olympics a good enough reason to miss bedtime? Zaza was jet lagged and, as a kid, inexperienced at trying to beat it. She was also beyond excited.

Basically she hadn’t slept in days.

Zaza got into table tennis when she was five years old. Her older brother, Obaida, won a local tournament and brought home a championship cup. She decided to try to go and win one of her own. The sport has proven to be a salvation, a distraction and an obsession.

Her home city of Hama has been subjected to repeated bombing campaigns and suffered various levels of destruction. As war and terror gripped her family and her community, table tennis — which uses an economy of space yet requires intense focus — wasn’t just the rare activity that could be played, it became a refuge.

“We [lived in] challenging conditions,” Zaza said. “We are able to control this. Once we go and play, we forget about everything and only think about playing. We are training so that we can challenge the whole world and we are up to the challenge.

“Table tennis gave me everything and taught me to be a strong human being," she continued. “It gave me confidence.”

Syria is not a table tennis hotbed. Only one other Syrian has ever qualified. But when Zaza took the Western Asia Qualification Tournament in 2020, defeating a 42-year-old in the final, she was in. She used the extra year to prepare.

“My performance improved,” she said.

It wasn’t easy though. Finding proper training and facilities is a daily challenge. Just going out can require security. In Syria, neither the immediate nor longterm future is ever certain. Funding is sparse and unreliable. The country has far more pressing challenges than supporting Olympians.

She never gave up though. She was asked if she had anything to tell all the kids from all over the world mesmerized by her story.

“For the last five years I’ve been through many different experiences, especially with the war happening around the country,” she said. “With the postponement, with the funding for the Olympics. It was very tough. I had to fight for it.

“This is my message,” she continued. “Fight for your dream regardless of the difficulties you are having and you will reach your goal.”

Zaza’s goal is to get back to the Olympics, of course — “to be the world champion and an Olympic champion.”

She admits she is a table tennis fanatic — “I will not stop playing,” she said. “Table tennis is my whole life. I spend all my time playing it. The day that I don’t train, I feel I’m missing something and the day is not good.”

But there is more to her. Way more.

She loves reading, swimming, basketball, watching dramas on television and being with her family. She likes her school. She wants to be a pharmacist or a lawyer when she is older.

Right now, she hopes just the vision of her here will remind the world that Syria isn’t just about military offensives and bombed out cities — there are real people there, real families, real dreams, real little girls capable of amazing things.

That’s an awful lot for a kid, even one this poised.

So, yes, a 12-year-old competed in the Olympics on Saturday.

And when the tears dry and the disappointment wanes, Hend Zaza will realize that even in defeat, she managed to remind everyone — young and old — of lessons far more important than a table tennis match.

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