Syrian table tennis prodigy Hend Zaza: "We are able to overcome obstacles"

After losing her first-round match, the 12-year-old from Syria tells why simply making it to Tokyo 2020 was an achievement, and what she took from the experience.

Picture by 2021 Getty Images

Twelve-year-old Hend Zaza left the Tokyo Metropolitan Gymnasium with her head held up high.

Despite losing her first-round match in straight sets: 4-11, 9 - 11, 3 - 11, 5 - 11 to Austria’s Liu Jia on Saturday (24 July) the Syrian paddler managed to produce a few smiles.

“Reaching the Tokyo Olympics was already an achievement, I wasn’t asked to win, I was asked to play well,” she told after. “I think I had a good performance and I learned from the loss."

"Hopefully in the next Olympics, there will be something in it for me.”

Zaza has defied large odds, emerging from war-torn Syria to become the youngest table tennis player in Olympic history - and her country's flagbearer in the Opening Ceremony.

It was a welcome relief from hearing artillery fire while training at home in Syria.

There was a gulf of experience between the players, with six-time Olympian Jia having won the European title in 2005, four years before Zaza was born.

"In my eyes I accomplished something. A twelve-year old girl playing against a 39-year-old and taking nine or ten points, this is an achievement," she said. "For sure, I wanted to win and take one or two matches, but hopefully in the next Olympics."

Hend Zaza takes a selfie with Austria's Liu Jia after their first-round match at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. 

Table tennis has no age restrictions, and the Zaza is also the youngest competitor across all sports at Tokyo 2020. 

The youngest recorded athlete at an Olympic Games was 10-year-old Greek gymnast Dimitrios Loundras, who competed at the Modern Olympics' birth in Athens 1896 and won a team bronze medal.

Triumphing in adversity

Zaza is very ambitious. She likes Harry Potter, calls three-time Olympic champion Ding Ning her idol and is hoping to become a lawyer or pharmacist in the future.

She has played table tennis since the age of five, and quickly became a national champion in all of Syria’s age categories.

But her local club in the town of Hama, a city heavily affected by war and terrorist attacks, had poor facilities.

“The conditions where I trained in Syria were a very hard thing to me, I wished for a different floor, we didn’t have such tables nor such preparations,” she continued.

The young athlete didn’t let that stop her from succeeding on the world stage.

In February 2021, she won the Western Asia Olympic Qualification Tournament in Jordan to clinch the women's singles title and a berth at Tokyo 2020.

“It’s great for us that we can play, and we are able to overcome those obstacles,” she said. “We want to show that even though we are in the middle of the war, we must do something."