Hend Zaza: 12-year-old Syrian makes history as youngest athlete at Tokyo 2020

If one of the great hallmarks of the Olympics is the story of the athletes who gave so much to make it happen, then there can be few stories more remarkable than that of Hend Zaza.

The Syrian is expected to be the youngest Tokyo 2020 contender to secure a table tennis qualification for the Olympics by winning the West Asia qualifying tournament last year at just 11 years old.

In the final of this tournament, Zaza beat Mariana Sahakian, almost four times her age, of Lebanon, and has now won the Syrian national titles in all four categories in which she is eligible, including the senior title, having started playing. at the age of five.

“Very rarely have I seen a player of this age play with such joy and train with such intensity as Zaza,” said Eva Jeler, a former German national table tennis coach.

“She never walked to pick up the ball – she ran. While of course his technique needed and still needs to be improved, his determination, resilience and willingness to play and win are (almost) a guarantee of future success.

The 12-year-old has lived much of her life in a country beset by 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 in March 2015, according to Al-Jazeera. According to his coach, Zaza has only been able to play two or three away matches a year since the start of his career due to the war.

It is therefore remarkable that Zaza – who was born in Hama, about 30 miles north of the city of Homs which was devastated in a three-year siege that ended in 2014 – was set to become the fifth youngest Olympian in history before the pandemic forced the postponement of the Games to 2021.

She will only be the second Syrian to compete in table tennis at the Olympics, after Heba Allejji. Zaza is, however, the first from her country to qualify for competition by conventional means; Allejji was invited by the Tripartite Ladies Singles Commission in Rio de Janeiro 2016.

“This qualifying tournament was really tough for us, but we’re really proud to be at the Olympics for the second time in our history; this time, however, it’s completely different because we achieved it through the qualification procedures, ”said Bassam Khalil, president of the Syrian Table Tennis Federation.

“The conflict in Syria in previous years has prevented us from participating in many events, but we have done our best to participate and keep table tennis in our country as active as possible. “

Nimble hands and swift eyes should be a boon in a game of intense focus and precision, and Zaza will certainly have the exuberance of youth on his side. Whatever her outcome, when her women’s singles campaign kicks off 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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