Tokyo 2020: 12-year-old Syrian, Hend Zaza, the youngest Olympic athlete

​She won the right to participate in the Olympics, in table-tennis, by winning the qualifiers for West Asia in Jordan. Sport as a means to overcome the traumas of war. Today she is ranked 155th in the international rankings in her discipline. Priest in Damascus: "A way to draw attention to Syria and the suffering of its people". 

 


Damascus (AsiaNews) - The Olympics have always been an international stage for the great (and small) personal feats of athletes who take part because of their sporting merits or because of the obstacles they had to overcome in order to compete, under the motto coined for the Games "its not about winning but taking part".

For Tokyo 2020, scheduled from today to 8 August, one of the most complicated in history due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the top step of the podium in this special ranking goes to the youngest athlete in the competition, 12-year-old Syrian Hend Zaza, originally from Hama and competing in table-tennis. 

Amer Kassar, a priest at Our Lady of Fatima Church in Damascus, told AsiaNews: "Although we do not know the athlete personally, as Syrians we are are following the participation of our athletes in the Games with great interest. This is also a way of drawing attention to Syria and the suffering of the Syrian people".

For too long the country has been relegated to the margins and forgotten by the international community, as denounced in the past by the apostolic nuncio in Damascus himself. Kassar added, "Sport is first of all an important human activity, and secondly, it brings young people closer together.

A Catholic from the capital speaks of a "miracle", because considering the "dramatic" conditions in Syria today, it is "really such a miracle that Zaza has managed to train and compete without emigrating". "She is truly a hero for reaching the Olympics," he adds, and these stories "serve to give hope to the whole nation." 

The girl started playing when she was just five years old, following the example of an older brother. She earned the right to participate in the Olympics  by winning the qualifying round for West Asian countries in February 2020 in Jordan, at the age of 11. In the final match, she defeated Lebanese rival Mariana Sahakian, who is almost four times her age. Zaza also won the Syrian national title in all four categories in which she can compete, including the senior category reserved for top-ranked athletes. 

Ranked 155th in the ITTF World Rankings (the international table-tennis federation), the young sportswoman was born in Hama in 2009 and took up the sport in 2014 to distract herself from the tragedy of the conflict that had engulfed the country. Sport, she says, has always played "a fundamental role in my life" and to overcome "trauma and difficulties" caused by the decade-long civil war, with over 400,000 victims and millions of displaced people. 

The Olympic table tennis tournament starts on 25 July at the Tokyo Metropolitan Gymnasium: it is the first major event on the international stage for this young athlete. In 2016, the International Federation had selected her for the "Hopes" programme, with which it intends to launch future champions in the sport, sensing her great potential while she was participating in the West Asia Hopes Week and Challenge, held in Qatar. 

Her coach says Zaza has only been able to play two or three level matches each year due to restrictions imposed by the conflict. That is why, for many sports and non-sports commentators, her participation in the Tokyo Games is an extraordinary achievement in itself. Zaza is also the first to qualify for the Games by following a conventional route that involves playing - and winning - matches against rivals from other nations in the region. Before her, Heba Allejji, who was invited by the Tripartite Commission to the last Games in Rio de Janeiro in 2016, had won the right to participate in the Olympics. 

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