Waves of athletes flowed into the Olympic Stadium during the opening ceremony on Friday night, mostly led by some of their most experienced and accomplished champions in the world. Yet as the small six-person Syrian delegation entered the arena, there was a slight difference.
Carrying the flag was no longtime, instantly recognisable Olympian, but rather a 12-year-old table tennis player called Hend Zaza. By qualifying for Tokyo last year, she is the youngest competitor in these Tokyo Games, the youngest table tennis entrant of all time and the youngest overall Olympian since the 1968 Winter Olympics.
The morning after, Zaza made her long-awaited debut in the preliminary round of the women’s singles, showing off her talent and the bright future that could lie ahead before eventually falling 11-4, 11-9, 11-3, 11-5 to Liu Jia of Austria.
The contrast between the two could have hardly been greater. As she entered her first Olympic competition, Zaza was greeted by a veteran in the 39-year-old Liu, who competed in three Olympic Games before Zaza was even born and has a 10-year-old daughter. Tokyo marks her sixth and final Olympics appearance.
I asked my daughter, ‘Do you know your mother is playing against someone two years older than you?’
Throughout the four games, Zaza’s talent was particularly reflected in the force of her heavy, potent topspin backhand that frequently breached Liu’s defences. After the opening game drifted from her, she responded by roaring to a 6-2 lead in the second game. But all of Liu’s experience and court sense were on show as Zaza was unable to close it. The Austrian drew a steady flow of mistakes from Zaza’s forehand, her weaker stroke, winning comprehensively in the end.
“Everybody knows that losing to someone so young can be a bit embarrassing,” said Liu. “Yesterday I asked my daughter: ‘Do you know your mother is playing against someone two years older than you?’ Her first response was: ‘Then you better not lose!’ I said: ‘Don’t give me pressure!’”
Such a vast age gap is something that Zaza has become well adjusted to in her short time in the spotlight. She reached the Olympics aged 11 by winning the Western Asia Olympic Qualification tournament in February last year, defeating a 42-year-old, Mariana Sahakian.
While her age alone is remarkable, the obstacles that Zaza has cleared to reach her Olympic dreams underline the importance of her progress. Born in the city of Hama, she had to endure incessant power cuts during training as the war raged outside. There were times when she struggled to find paddles and balls while she trained on a concrete floor and worn tables. Due to the war, she was often unable to travel to international competitions. When she could, acquiring visas to reach them was yet another obstacle.
But the conditions Zaza has grown up in have never limited her varied, lofty dreams. She wants to be a world and Olympic champion in her sport, but as she continues her studies she also sees herself one day becoming a pharmacist or lawyer.
“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.”
On the first day of the Olympics, there she stood against with a seasoned veteran on the biggest sporting stage in the world, another step forward in pursuit of her ultimate goals.