Hend Zaza’s brief Olympic journey may have come to an end, but the Syrian table tennis player, the youngest competitor at Tokyo 2020 aged just 12, has inspired everyone who has followed her journey.
Within a few hours of carrying her nation’s flag into the Olympic Stadium during the opening ceremony on Friday evening, Zaza was in action in the women’s preliminary round against an opponent more than three times her age in 39-year-old Liu Jia from Austria.
It proved to be a short encounter. Despite taking the lead twice in games two and three, Zaza was unable to consolidate, while the Austrian dominated throughout. The final result was 4-0 in a match that lasted just 24 minutes.
Albeit a brief appearance in Tokyo, Zaza’s story is one that has truly captured the Olympic spirit. Her home city of Hama was heavily affected by terrorism and the ongoing Syrian civil war. At the age of just five years old, and inspired by her older brother, Obaida, she took up table tennis as respite from the daily hardships.
At seven years old, Zaza accompanied her brother to the West Asia Hopes Week and Challenge in Qatar in 2016, a regional programme set up by the International Table Tennis Foundation to nurture young talent. Having impressed the coaches, she was invited to compete.
Zaza now plays for Al-Muhafaza Table Tennis Club in Damascus. She has since become the first Syrian player to win national titles in all four categories in which she was eligible: hopes, cadets, juniors and senior.
She made headlines when she qualified for the Tokyo Games at the Western Asia Olympic Qualification Tournament in Jordan in February 2020. Zaza won four of five matches to claim the women's singles title with a 4-3 victory over Lebanon's Mariana Sahakian in the final in Amman.
Her progress has come amidst continued hardship in Syria. The civil war which killed around 500,000 people, displaced millions, and ravaged infrastructure since it started in 2011, has not only impacted Zaza’s life, but also her development. Damascus experiences frequent power outages which often restrict her practice sessions to daylight hours, and she can often struggle to buy training gear and equipment.
“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,” she said.
“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.
“Playing against a very experienced opponent is very tough especially for my first Olympic match so it was very tough to mentally be prepared for it. But I think I managed somehow to overcome this.
“I was hoping to play better but it’s a good lesson, especially with this being my first Olympics. I will work on it to get a better result for next time. I want to be in this competition longer, not only for the first round.”
Austria’s Liu, who was European champion in 2005 – four years before Zaza was born – offered words of encouragement in admiration of the Syrian.
“There are people who have to endure difficulties. They are amazing, it hasn’t been easy for them," she said. "She’s a girl, too – to be in an Olympics at 12, in my heart I really admire her.”
Having overcome so much just to be at the Games, this loss, as painful as it may be, is unlikely to be a major setback in the story of the fifth youngest Olympian in history.
"I think I had a good performance and I learned from the loss," Zaza said. "Hopefully in the next Olympics, there will be something in it for me."