For Hend Zaza, Olympics' youngest athlete, reaching Games 'already an achievement'

Syria's Hend Zaza is the youngest athlete at the Tokyo Olympics at just 12 years and 204 days. She was eliminated from the competition in her opening match. Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images

Hend Zaza's Olympics finished with a selfie, a straight sets defeat and the belief that she has more to come. Syria's table tennis star is the youngest athlete in Tokyo, at 12 years and 204 days, and the fifth youngest known in Olympics history. She was the lowest seed in the draw, and her opponent Saturday in the preliminary round, Austria's Liu Jia, was 27 years her senior and competing in her sixth Olympics.

As Zaza picked through the 4-0 defeat in Tokyo's Metropolitan Gymnasium, she was still exhausted from carrying Syria's flag in the opening ceremony just a few hours earlier. "Reaching the Olympics was already an achievement," Zaza said. "I wasn't asked to win, I was asked to play well. I think I had a good performance and I learn from the loss."

Zaza's goal at Tokyo 2020 was to make Syrians "happy," and to inspire others to follow in her footsteps. She started playing table tennis seven years ago, at age 5, in Hama, a city severely impacted by the civil war that started in 2011. Her coach, Adham Aljumaan, said Zaza trained on old tables, with practice frequently interrupted by power cuts as war engulfed the country.

As she got older, equipment was hard to come by, and she couldn't travel to tournaments to develop her game. But in February 2020 she qualified for Tokyo 2020 through winning the West Asia Olympic Qualification tournament.

"This qualification gives every single player in the country the knowledge it is possible," Syrian Table Tennis Federation president Bassam Khalil said.

She would have competed last year at 11, but the delayed Olympics offered her the chance to leave Damascus and train alongside the Chinese Olympic team.

"Table tennis gave me everything and taught me to be a strong human being, a confident one. It gave me patience," Zaza said. "We are training so that we can challenge the whole world and we are up to the challenge."

She said Saturday she was "out of my comfort zone," having spent five hours preparing and participating in the opening ceremony the previous evening -- on top of the seven-hour time difference with Syria. But she vowed to learn from her experience and hopes to get a "better result" at Paris 2024.

Her opponent Liu started competing eight years before Zaza was born and has a child around the same age as her.

"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!'" Liu said.

After the match Liu paid tribute to Zaza, who pushed her hard with her tricky right-hand top spin and variable serve. "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 said.

Zaza now returns to her training base in Damascus and will continue learning the sport. She also aspires to study law or pharmaceuticals. As she leaves Tokyo with the memories of her first Olympics -- complete with a selfie with Liu -- she wants to send a message to children watching back in Syria.

"For the last five years I've been through many different experiences, especially when there was the war happening around the country, with the postponement with funding for the Olympics, and it was very tough," Zaza said. "But I had to fight for it, and this is my message to everyone who wishes to have the same situation: Fight for your dreams, try hard, regardless of the difficulties that you're having, and you will reach your goal."