Syria's table tennis tween navigates 'tough' road to Olympics

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Syria's Hend Zaza was conscionable 5 erstwhile she archetypal picked up a array tennis paddle, and present the 12-year-old is the youngest idiosyncratic to vie astatine the Tokyo Olympics.

Zaza changeable to fame overnight successful her war-torn state past twelvemonth aft beating a Lebanese rival successful her forties to triumph the West Asia championships, qualifying her for the Olympics.

She is the lone pistillate subordinate of a six-person squad vying for her location country's fourth-ever Olympic medal.

On Saturday, she volition footwear disconnected the contention against 39-year-old Austrian Liu Jia successful the preliminary circular of the women's singles.

Zaza is acceptable to go the youngest Olympian since 11-year-old Beatrice Hustiu competed successful fig skating astatine the 1968 Winter Olympics.

Coach Adham Jumaan says helium discovered Zaza erstwhile she was lone 5 years old, 3 years into Syria's devastating civilian war.

She was playing ping-pong with her older member Obeida, a inferior nationalist tennis table champion, successful a sports hallway successful cardinal Syria's Hama.

"I was struck by her physique, speedy reflexes and intuition," Jumaan said.

"She was intelligibly gifted."

Recognising that she was smart, determined and ambitious, helium started disconnected by giving her regular grooming sessions astatine the aforesaid sports centre.

Just 7 months later, it paid disconnected erstwhile Zaza finished 2nd successful the 2015 Syrian inferior championships aged conscionable six.

From there, she roseate from 1 occurrence to the next.

By the property of nine, she had won the nether 12s nationalist contention and West Asia championships. And she won the nationalist women's cup.

Syria's civilian warfare has killed astir 500,000 people, displaced millions, and ravaged infrastructure since it started successful 2011 with the repression of anti-government protests.

"We trained successful pugnacious conditions," said Jumaan, who was her manager until recently.

There were "power cuts astatine the sports hall. Sometimes we were stuck wrong for hours" arsenic rebel artillery occurrence fell outside.

"And we struggled to get visas to instrumentality portion successful competitions abroad."

As the decease toll mounted astatine the commencement of Syria's war, respective countries chopped diplomatic relations with the Syrian authorities and closed their missions successful Damascus.

But past year, the Chinese Olympic Committee invited Zaza to spell and bid with its players successful China aft coronavirus restrictions were lifted.

She is present successful Tokyo with chap Syrians precocious jumper Majd Eddin Ghazal, weightlifter Man Asaad, showjumper Ahmed Hamsho, swimmer Ayman Kalzieh, and triathlete Mohamed Masso.

Zaza has precocious hopes.

"I imagination of becoming satellite champion and an Olympic champion" 1 day, she told AFP.

But I besides privation "to decorativeness my studies and go a pharmacist".

Her father, an amateur shot player, has ever made definite she had backstage tuition truthful she would not miss retired connected schoolhouse portion competing.

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