Syrian refugee shuttler Aram Mahmoud targets Tokyo

Six years after leaving Syria for the Netherlands, Mahmoud is dreaming of facing junior opponent Momota Kento at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, which he will be taking part in after being selected to the 2021 IOC Refugee Olympic Team.
By Rory Jiwani

In 2014, young Aram Mahmoud was a two-time Syrian men's singles badminton champion, and represented his homeland at the World Junior Championships in Alor Setar, Malaysia.

The following year, unable to go to school or train as the civil war continued to rage, he left to join his brother in the Netherlands.

Having settled into his new surroundings in Almere, with the help of his sport, Mahmoud now has his sights set on competing at Tokyo 2020 in 2021 as part of the IOC Refugee Olympic Team.

He's been drawn in a group with Jonatan Christie of Indonesia, and could take on his hero, world number one Momota Kento, who he played against as a child.

"Sport is a very big part of my life. My dream was always to reach the Olympic Games. I hope I can make it to Tokyo." - Aram Mahmoud speaking to UNHCR

Starting afresh in Almere

Mahmoud took up badminton when he was seven, following his sister Sanaa in making the switch from gymnastics.

He told UNHCR, "I followed her everywhere. And when I started to play, I felt like it was a very good sport and very fun for me. I started playing with her, and together we became the best in Syria."

While still at school, he won two national men's singles titles and gold at the Arab Youth Championship, but took the massive decision to move to the Netherlands.

"With the situation being very dangerous for me in Syria, I decided to leave because I couldn't go to school anymore or practise like a normal player.

"When I came here, I started to talk with Dutch people about my sport, about practising here with a club. I was very lucky to meet many good people and they helped put me on the right way. That's why I came to Almere." - Aram Mahmoud speaking to UNHCR

Mahmoud quickly became an integral part of the team at BV Almere, excelling in singles and in mixed doubles with Amy Tan.

He also made up for lost time after making his debut representing the Netherlands in international events from September 2018, claiming his first title at the Latvia International in June 2019.

His performances saw him break into the top 200 of the world rankings, and earn an IOC Refugee Athlete Scholarship.

Then in March 2020, he helped BV Almere become Dutch national league champions for the first time.

Speaking at the finals to Badminton Nederland, Mahmoud said, "I know if I win, then I win for the whole team and that's a wonderful feeling. Even if I lose, the rest of the team has to see that I have tried everything and that they are going to do the same."

The global Covid-19 pandemic checked Mahmoud's progress ahead of the Olympic Games, and he started a course in economics at the Hogeschool van Amsterdam (Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences) while the badminton halls were closed.

The break did, however, enable him to take stock of where he was as a player and what he needs to do to move to the next level.

Mahmoud told BWF, "I saw at competitions that I need mental focus and fitness training. I will get confident if my condition is good. If I’m focussed, I feel like I’ll have a bigger opportunity than my opponent.

"That’s what happened in my last two (club) matches. Nothing had changed in my game, but only my focus, because I wanted to win. It was like my focus was on winning, and not just playing. I have to fight."

Drilling down to Tokyo

Last October, Mahmoud moved to German side SC Union 08 Luedinghausen where national champion and Olympic hopeful Yvonne Li plies her trade.

The pandemic has wrecked the 2020/21 Bundesliga season, but the 23-year-old has been earning ranking points on the international circuit and reached the semi-finals of the Slovenia International in late May.

Mahmoud was granted a place to compete at the Tokyo 2020 Games in 2021 to represent the IOC Refugee Olympic Team.

He told UNHCR, "It's an honour for me, and my dream will maybe even come true. I see my goal and I want to reach it.

"I cannot play for The Netherlands because then I could not play for Syria again. For me, the Refugees team is very big.

"It gives a big chance to people, for players who dream of being in the Olympics, to practise more, to get a chance to be in this team. And this team is very important also for other people as motivation for them to work hard. There is nothing impossible to reach for your dream."

Mahmoud names two-time Olympic champion Lin Dan and reigning two-time world champion Momota Kento as his heroes in badminton.

He says of Momota, "He is one of the best players now, and I met him before. I played against him also before, when I was like a child, at a junior tournament. It was a very, very good moment for me to remember."

Medals might be out of the question for Mahmoud, but Tokyo would be a superb learning experience as he bids to join the badminton elite.

"I will do my best to be higher in the rankings, to reach the top 100, the top 70 in the world. And I will do it, I think." - Aram Mahmoud speaking to UNHCR