Zaid Kareem ready to build on Jordan's taekwondo rise at Paris Olympics

The 22-year-old won a silver medal at the Asian Games last October and looks primed for success in France this summer

Jordan's Zaid Kareem won a silver medal at the 2022 Asian Games in Hangzhou. AFP
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As the Jordanian men’s national football team were making their way to a historic runner-up finish in the Asian Cup, the country’s top taekwondo fighters spent time in Fujairah honing their skills ahead of this summer’s Paris 2024 Olympics.

The Fujairah Martial Arts Club hosted a training camp for several taekwondo national teams, including Jordan, Tunisia, Greece and Kazakhstan, bringing together some of the world’s most talented athletes under one roof for the kick off of the Olympic season.

Tokyo 2020 silver medallists Mohamed Khalil Jendoubi (-58kg), of Tunisia, and Saleh El Sharabaty (-80kg), of Jordan, were among those taking part, along with Jordanian 2018 Youth Olympics bronze medallist Zaid Kareem, who is currently ranked No 5 in the world in the -68kg category.

Kareem, 22, is the latest in a string of gifted Jordanians that has risen up the taekwondo ranks and populated podiums on the sport’s biggest stages over the past decade.

A silver medallist at the Asian Games in Hangzhou last October, Kareem looks primed for success in Paris this summer, where he hopes to add to Jordan’s growing medal haul in the sport.

In 2016, taekwondo fighter Ahmad Abughaush claimed Jordan’s first official medal at an Olympic Games by topping the podium in the -68kg division before El Sharabaty added a second medal five years later at Tokyo by claiming a silver medal.

Last year, Julyana Al Sadeq became the first Jordanian and Arab woman to top the world taekwondo rankings following her victory at the Saudi Grand Prix in December 2022.

All three are Paris-bound this summer.

“We train together every day, we practically live together. We’re not a team, we are family,” Kareem told The National following the conclusion of the team’s training camp in Fujairah.

“We are always at each other’s houses, and are together day and night training. Saleh’s medal in Tokyo gives me even more belief in myself because we train together all the time. So his silver medal was one of the biggest incentives for me to scoop many medals after Tokyo.”

Still a teenager at the time, Kareem didn’t go to the Tokyo Olympics but he exploded on to the scene in 2022, rising from No 38 to No 6 in the Olympic rankings.

“Ever since the Tokyo 2020 Olympics ended, we have been under a lot of pressure, competing in so many events, and the goal was to qualify for the Paris Olympics directly via world ranking rather than go through continental qualifiers. So we competed in so many events,” he explained.

“I defeated so many great athletes in 2022, including all three medallists – gold, silver, and bronze – from the Tokyo Olympics. So that was very encouraging, and I proved to myself I belong among the best, and realised that I was capable of winning at this level.

“2023 was gruelling as well; a long season where every point mattered because many athletes were breathing down our necks in the rankings. So, thankfully, I qualified via ranking and I am much more relaxed now. I can just focus on training and camps from now until Paris.”

Kareem was first introduced to the sport aged five, when his father took him to a nearby taekwondo club so he could burn some energy away from the house.

It wasn’t until he was 14 and earning his first international medal in the cadets division that he realised he needed to take the sport more seriously. Three years later, Kareem made the podium at the Youth Olympics in Buenos Aires and he’s now ready to go even further this summer in Paris.

“The Youth Olympics, to this day, is one of the best events I’ve ever participated in,” reflects the Al Ahliyya Amman University student.

“Seeing athletes from all over the world in one place, in one Olympic Village, was such a great experience for me. And I was honoured to bring a medal to my country.

“The experience I got from the Youth Olympics will be very valuable to me when I go to Paris this summer, because I’ll have lived through a similar environment before. There’s always high pressure at an Olympics, so if you’ve been through something similar in the past, surely it’ll help.”

Kareem credits Jordan’s vibrant taekwondo scene for the kingdom’s success on the world stage. He says there are over 60 martial arts clubs across the country and there is a full calendar of competitions and training camps, which helps elevate the overall level of athletes.

National team coach Faris Al Assaf says a national Olympic training centre opened its doors in 2021, which boasts world-class facilities, including a hall dedicated to taekwondo, along with a gym, physio room, and everything an athlete needs.

“Our federation is very strong and they give great attention to taekwondo, which is practically a national sport in Jordan; we probably have more people doing taekwondo than playing football in the country,” said Al Assaf.

“We worked hard to make sure we had a full national team, not just one or two fighters. So we have competitors across all weight classes.

“We’ve had about 30 countries come for training camps in Jordan, from across all continents. We have developed a special Jordanian style in taekwondo, just like there is the Korean school and the Iranian school, now there is the Jordanian school in taekwondo.

“If you watch our athletes, you can identify a certain style associated with Jordanian fighters and the biggest nations in the sport now know they are in for a big fight if they are facing one of our competitors.

“Taekwondo switched to an electronic scoring system after the Beijing 2008 Olympics so we have merged both styles of play, from the old system and the new system, which means our athletes are more complete.”

For Kareem, taekwondo has provided an environment where he can be himself. The 22-year-old from Amman has a never-say-die attitude, and is confident in his chances in Paris this summer.

“When I am on the mat, I feel like I can impose my personality, and show who I am,” he said.

“Tight competitions make me really happy and it allows me to give my all and show what I’m made of. You get to mix with so many people from around the world in a sport like taekwondo so it helps you develop your personality, and improve your communication skills and how you deal with people.

“As Zaid, surrender is not part of my vocabulary, I always compete until the very last second. In so many of my fights, I secured the win in the last second. Because I never give up and I know the fight is never over until the referee says it’s over. I keep fighting until the final moments. Even when I’m way behind in the score, I always believe I can catch up.”

He added: “I have defeated the best in the world, so in my mind, nothing is impossible. I just need to stay focused and prepare well in these six months. The Olympics is all about the mental side, so I need to make sure I arrive in Paris in a good mental state. All I can do is give my best and hopefully a medal is within reach.”

Updated: February 15, 2024, 8:45 AM