Olympics' youngest athlete inspires with kind gesture for opponent

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
·Sports Reporter
·4-min read
In this article:
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
Syria's Hend Zaza, 12, took a selfie with 39-year-old table tennis opponent Liu Jia after their match at the Tokyo Olympics.
Syrian 12-year-old Hend Zaza was the youngest competitor at the Tokyo Olympics, and posed for a photo with her 39-year-old opponent after being eliminated from the women's table tennis bracket. Pictures: Getty Images

The youngest competitor at the Tokyo Olympics has bowed out of the Games, but not before a touching gesture for her winning opponent.

Syrian table tennis prodigy Hend Zaza became the fifth-youngest competitor in the history of the games when she faced Austrian entrant Liu Jia.

'CROWN YOURSELF': Curious detail in first Tokyo Olympics medal ceremony

'THIS IS A DARK DAY': Tokyo Olympics rocked by Covid chaos

The age disparity between the 12-year-old Zaza, who served as Syria's flag-bearer in the Opening Ceremony, and the 39-year-old Austrian was stark.

Perhaps showing the effects of a busy schedule ahead of her first game, thanks to some jet-lag and the late night at the Opening Ceremony, Zaza was slightly disappointed to lose out, 4-0.

That didn't stop the 12-year-old from stopping Jia after their match to ask for a picture with the six-time Olympian.

The youngest Olympian since 11-year-old Spanish rower Carlos Front in 1992, Zaza was born in Hama, Syria, to an athletic family and started playing table tennis at the age of five.

She has been able to participate in only two or three external matches a year due to the Syrian civil war, her coach Adham Jamaan has said.

Frequent power outages also restricted her to occasionally practise only during daytime hours.

But Zaza beat the odds after winning the West Asia Olympic qualification tournament in Jordan last year, becoming the first Syrian paddler to qualify for the Olympics.

“I was hoping for a win in the match,” she said. “I was hoping for better play.”

Hend Zaza's incredible path to becoming youngest 2021 Olympian

Zaza got into table tennis when she was five years old. 

Her older brother, Obaida, won a local tournament and brought home a championship cup. She decided to try to go and win one of her own. The sport has proven to be a salvation, a distraction and an obsession.

Her home city of Hama has been subjected to repeated bombing campaigns and suffered various levels of destruction. As war and terror gripped her family and her community, table tennis — which uses an economy of space yet requires intense focus — wasn’t just the rare activity that could be played, it became a refuge.

“We [lived in] challenging conditions,” Zaza said. “We are able to control this. Once we go and play, we forget about everything and only think about playing. We are training so that we can challenge the whole world and we are up to the challenge.

“Table tennis gave me everything and taught me to be a strong human being," she continued. “It gave me confidence.”

Syria is not a table tennis hotbed. Only one other Syrian has ever qualified. But when Zaza took the Western Asia Qualification Tournament in 2020, defeating a 42-year-old in the final, she was in. She used the extra year to prepare.

“My performance improved,” she said.

Syria's flag bearers Hend Zaza and Ahmad Saber Hamcho  lead their delegation as they parade during the opening ceremony of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games. (Photo by ODD ANDERSEN/AFP via Getty Images)
Syria's flag bearers Hend Zaza and Ahmad Saber Hamcho lead their delegation as they parade during the opening ceremony of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games. (Photo by ODD ANDERSEN/AFP via Getty Images)

It wasn’t easy though. Finding proper training and facilities is a daily challenge. Just going out can require security. In Syria, neither the immediate nor longterm future is ever certain. Funding is sparse and unreliable. The country has far more pressing challenges than supporting Olympians.

She never gave up though. She was asked if she had anything to tell all the kids from all over the world mesmerised by her story.

“For the last five years I’ve been through many different experiences, especially with the war happening around the country,” she said. “With the postponement, with the funding for the Olympics. It was very tough. I had to fight for it.

“This is my message,” she continued. “Fight for your dream regardless of the difficulties you are having and you will reach your goal.” 

With AAP/Yahoo Sport US

Watch 'Mind Games', the new series from Yahoo Sport Australia exploring the often brutal mental toil elite athletes go through in pursuit of greatness:

Click here to sign up to our newsletter for all the latest and breaking stories from Australia and around the world.

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting