On Tuesday, Arz Zahreddine will step into the National Stadium in Tokyo carrying the flag of Lebanon in the opening ceremony of the 2020 Tokyo Paralympic Games.
Zahreddine is Lebanon’s sole representative at the Paralympic Games and will be competing in the men’s 200m T64 category. As Lebanon’s only Paralympian, he is experiencing a raft of emotions.
“I tell myself, ‘let’s do it. You’re representing all Arab countries and Lebanon. You should perform well'," he told The National.
When Zahreddine speaks, he does so with a tone of determination and self-belief, a mindset borne from years of overcoming obstacles and surprising others with his achievements.
Like many incredible stories, Zahreddine’s starts with tragedy. Having lost his right leg in a car accident at the age of just three, Zahreddine was traumatised and he fought to come to terms with his disability. This struggle was compounded as he faced bullying at school.
“It was very hard to listen to. Many days and nights I closed the bedroom door and cried. I asked God, ‘why me? Why did the universe choose me to lose my leg?’” Zahreddine said.
With the help of a child psychologist, Zahreddine challenged himself to do something positive and turned to sports. But it wasn’t the track that first compelled him to compete. At the age of seven, having been attracted initially by the uniforms worn by fencers, Zahreddine told his parents he wanted to give it a go.
“They told me, ‘It’s a bit hard because you have to use your leg.’ So I told them, ‘Yes, I am going to try it.’”
It turned out he was quite good at it. Very good in fact. Zahreddine went on to compete with able-bodied athletes all the way to national and international level; between 2012 and 2017 he picked up three gold medals, one silver and two bronzes in Lebanese national championships.
He also was selected to represent Lebanon throughout the region, picking up bronze medals in junior West Asian championships in team foil and individual epee in 2012 and 2013 respectively.
Having achieved so much in such a short span, including being ranked in the world top 200 by the time he was 18, Zahreddine decided that he wanted to make a change. Inspired by Para athletes like his hero and three-time Paralympian Jarryd Wallace, Zahreddine decided to switch the fencing sabre for a running blade.
Setting his sights firmly on the 2020 Tokyo Paralympic Games, Zahreddine began training. He adapted to the pressures of the new sport on his body, but maintained the same strong-mindedness and self-belief that had guided him to so much success.
In his first international meet, the Grosseto 2019 Grand Prix in Italy, Zahreddine picked up the gold in 200m T64 event and silver in the 100m. In doing so he had done enough to qualify for the Dubai 2019 World Para Athletics Championships, where he finished in eighth. These performances were enough to guarantee him his place in Tokyo.
Like for so many athletes, when the world went into lockdown in early 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic, opportunities to train and compete dried up for the 22-year-old. Meanwhile, Zahreddine saw his country, his home, slip into despair.
“I thought bullying was the most challenging obstacle that I surpassed, but the [August 2020 Beirut Port] explosion, the economic and financial crisis, even with my mindset it’s hard to ignore the problems, it’s everywhere,” he said.
Zahreddine admits that he struggles to see his athletics career continue in Lebanon. But for now, he has a clear goal in mind.
“This year, for the paras I thought I would race for myself," he said. "But now I am going to race for all the Lebanese people, and for the victims of the Beirut port explosion. That is what I can do right now.”
Zahreddine is only the fourth Paralympian to represent Lebanon at the games. The Mediterranean nation’s last two Paralympic delegations were also a solo act. In 2008, Edward Maalouf picked up two bronze medals in cycling in 2008 and in 2012 he returned to finish ninth in the men’s time trial H2 category.
Lebanon’s debut at the Paralympics was in Sydney 2000, when two male athletes failed to complete their races.
All Zahreddine has to do is cross the finish line on Saturday in the men’s 200m T64 to make history for Lebanon. However, reflecting on his success in 2019, Zahreddine has his sights firmly set on the podium.
“Disability is only in one’s mind," he said. "When you sit all day on the couch and discriminate against people, this is a disability. But in my case, I have an amputation and I run, I don't think this is a disability.”