Olympics: 12-year-old paddler Hend Zaza emerges from war-torn Syria to become Tokyo 2020's youngest athlete

When Hend Zaza (above, in 2020) she takes on Austria's Liu Jia, who at 39 is old enough to be her mother, she will become the youngest Olympian at the Tokyo Games.
When Hend Zaza (above, in 2020) she takes on Austria's Liu Jia, who at 39 is old enough to be her mother, she will become the youngest Olympian at the Tokyo Games.PHOTO: AFP

TOKYO - Whipping out a pair of chopsticks, she mimics slurping ramen as she declares her love for Japanese food. Soft-spoken, she tries to converse in a different language as she toggles between English and her native Arabic.

Just like any other 12-year-old, Hend Zaza is inquisitive, shy and eager to absorb knowledge like a sponge. She likes mathematics and Harry Potter, and has lofty ambitions of becoming a pharmacist or lawyer.

But Zaza is no ordinary girl. Last year, she became the first Syrian table tennis player to qualify for the Olympics after beating 43-year-old Lebanese Mariana Sahakian 4-3 to win the West Asia qualifiers.

She is her country's flag bearer, and when she takes on Austria's Liu Jia, who at 39 is old enough to be her mother, in the women's singles preliminary round at the Tokyo Metropolitan Gymnasium on Saturday (July 24), Zaza will become the youngest Olympian at these Games.

She will also become the youngest Olympian since 11-year-old Spanish rower Carlos Front 12-year-old Hungarian swimmer Judit Kiss competed at Barcelona 1992.

Zaza tells the Olympic Information Services: "My goal at the Tokyo Olympics is to perform well so all my hard work won't be in vain. I will try my hardest and God-willing, something good will be in store for me."

Inspired by Obeida, one of her four older brothers, Zaza first picked up a table tennis bat when she was five. Her development in her war-torn country has been nothing short of remarkable.

Athletes sometimes come under fire for their performances, but in Zaza's case, she can actually hear rebel artillery fire when she trains six days a week in Syria in a room with four run-down tables and a dilapidated concrete floor.

There are only three-hour day sessions because of frequent power cuts, and balls and bats have to be sourced from overseas as they are not found in Syria.

Instead of complaining about the conditions on social media, Zaza carries on with a maturity beyond her years and has become a national champion and heroine.

She says: "Our condition was very difficult but despite all that, we were able to get results.

"For sure, I will not stop playing. Ping-pong is my whole life, the day I don't train, I feel I'm missing something and the day is not good. Once we go and play, we forget (the challenging conditions)."

While she is unlikely to upset the powerhouses in the Chinese-dominated sport in Tokyo, Zaza has already captured the hearts of Weibo commenters after naming three-time gold medallist Ding Ning as her idol. She also received an invite from the Chinese Olympic Committee to train with its national team last year.

With no superior opponents in her country to push her, Zaza is keen to "go for training camps and play professionally in a club" or earn an Olympic scholarship after Tokyo 2020 to become a better player, but the patriotism in her voice is hard to miss despite her country's woes.

She says: "Leaving Syria (for good), definitely no. I want to play for my country's name... for sure I have the honour to represent my country in international tournaments and championships."

Shorter than 1.5 metres, Zaza is also not afraid to dream big, as she boldly proclaims: "I'm working towards the future to be the world champion and an Olympic champion."