The Scottish Mail on Sunday
Zaza, 12, carries flag for the true spirit of Games
THE 12-year-old Syrian table tennis player arrived in slightly baggy shorts and grey T-shirt with her long hair in a green scrunchie and stood rather awkwardly while the umpires took their places. Her 39-year-old Austrian opponent’s immaculate apparel revealed the different worlds they occupy.
Hend Zaza, the youngest Olympian since 11-year-old Beatrice Hustiu competed in figure skating at the 1968 Winter Games, has struggled at times to find tables to play on amid the conflict which has ravaged her country. Municipal sports halls and garages have had to do.
Here, in a preliminary round session on the first full morning of competition, was the very essence of the Olympics. No surprise that besieged Syria, which has sent only five competitors, chose Zaza as their flag bearer on Friday night, even though those duties kept her up later than she is accustomed.
‘We had to start our journey to the opening ceremony at 6pm which is quite early,’ she reflected. ‘Then we were there until about 11.30, which is quite a long time to be without practising or getting ready for the morning session.’
Zaza was spotted playing the sport with her older brother in a public hall in central Syria’s Hama, aged six. She trained there with coach Adham Aljamaan, shrugging off frequent power cuts and the noise of rebel artillery fire, from which they would shelter for hours. The diminutive size of her Chineseborn opponent, Jia Liu, detracted from the incongruous sight of Zaza. So did the schoolgirl’s table tennis. Strongest on her backhand, she sparred strongly, levelling at 4-4 in the first game after losing the first three points before Liu, who was No 9 in the world seven years ago and is now 107, took that game.
Zaza had Liu 8-7 in the second but an overhit forehand, struck when she was off balance, and a netted forehand sent that the Austrian’s way, too. There was a five-minute delay for the table to be wiped with the score at 6-3 in the third. Liu won the next five points.
After losing 4-0, Zaza spoke with a wisdom beyond her years. ‘For the last five years I’ve been through many different experiences, especially with the war happening around the country, with the postponement, with the funding for the Olympics.
‘It was very tough. My message to anyone who has a similar situation is: “Fight for your dream, regardless of the difficulties you are having, and you will reach your goal.”’