Hend Zaza’s Olympic journey may have been brought to a swift finish but the Syrian table tennis player, the youngest competitor at Tokyo 2020 aged just 12, gave an uplifting message to those following her journey.
Just a few short hours after carrying her nation’s flag into the Olympic Stadium 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.
The Austrian’s experience told as Zaza was unable to consolidate on holding leads in both games two and three, and although she lost 4-0 in a match that lasted just 24 minutes, the youngster was in an upbeat mood afterwards.
Hers is a feelgood story that punctuates every Olympics. Zaza’s home city of Hama was razed by the ongoing civil war in her native country but she was encouraged to take up her sport aged five as a means of escape.
Frequent power outages where she now trains in Damascus can restrict her practice sessions to daylight hours while difficulty in procuring equipment and a lack of adequate training partners have hardly aided her development.
Yet Zaza, the youngest Olympian since 1992, departed these Games with a spirited statement of hope as she reflected on the challenges that led her to the Tokyo Metropolitan Gymnasium on Saturday morning.
“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.”
Zaza admitted afterwards that having to switch focus to competing so soon after her star turn at the opening ceremony had some influence on her defeat.
“We had to start our journey to the Olympic opening ceremony at six o’clock, which is quite early, standing there, or preparing, till 11 or after 11, which is quite a long time,” she added.
“Getting ready for the morning session, plus the jet lag, which is seven hours difference from Syria, both are definitely factors that put me out of my comfort zone.”
China-born Liu, Austria’s flag bearer at Rio 2016, revealed she was under additional pressure from her 10-year-old daughter heading into her opening encounter, but after completing her win, she and Zaza had a selfie together.
“Everybody knows losing to someone so young can be a bit embarrassing,” Liu said. “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 did tell the media though that if I did lose I would jump off my balcony. So my daughter said: ‘If you really lose, please don’t jump. You have to come home’.
“But there’s sport and there’s life. There are people who have to endure difficulties. They are amazing, it hasn’t been easy for them. She’s a girl, too – to be in an Olympics at 12, in my heart I really admire her.
“I didn’t sleep well last night. I had to remind myself not to underestimate her. I feel her ball sense is pretty good, she has a good rhythm. Such a talent needs to have her potential developed.”