Syrian table tennis star makes historic debut as youngest Olympian at Tokyo Games

With every step inside Tokyo’s Metropolitan Gymnasium on Saturday, Syria’s Hend Zaza had begun to etch her name into the history books.

At 12 years old, Zaza was already Tokyo’s youngest athlete, and now, with the first swing of her paddle, she also became the youngest Olympian in table tennis history.

Her dark, wavy hair lashed against her cheeks as she faced her Austrian opponent Liu Jia, who, at 39, was more than three times her age.

While Liu’s veteran savvy won out, cruising to a 4-0 victory in their women’s preliminary round match, Zaza’s Olympic journey is far from complete.

Having already overcome countless obstacles, including a war that has left her country torn and her home city of Hama destroyed, her message to others remains clear.

“Fight for your dreams,” Zaza said. “Try hard, regardless of the difficulties that you’re having, and you will reach your goal.”

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Despite trying circumstances, table tennis has long been Zaza’s escape. She credits the game, which she began playing at the age of seven, for teaching her to be “a strong human being.”

Even before her match, her confidence was on display as she helped lead Syria’s delegation in the Parade of Nations. Proud to have been chosen to carry her country’s flag, she hopes that her presence in Tokyo, however brief, has helped provide some level of comfort to people back home.

Zaza’s determination to improve is why she says she will never stop playing.

“Table tennis is my whole life — I spend all my time playing it. Other than table tennis, I study,” she said.

Even after defeat, Zaza’s mind was already geared toward making her Olympic return.

“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,” she said.

“[Next time] I will be working hard to pass the first, second, third rounds, because I want to be in this [Olympic] competition longer.”

Liu, whose 10-year-old daughter is only two years younger than Zaza, was impressed her by prodigious, youthful opponent.

Zaza with Austria’s Liu Jia are shown after their women’s singles preliminary round table tennis match. Liu, 39, cruised to a 4-0 victory. (Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

“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.”

Liu, who is in her sixth and final Olympics, admitted to feeling nervous prior to the match.

“Everybody knows that losing to someone so young can be a bit embarrassing. Yesterday 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 said ‘don’t give me pressure!'”

Later in the day, Liu extended her win streak by defeating Ganna Gaponova of Ukraine 4-2.

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