Syrian 12-year-old Hend Zaza

Credit: AFP

Syrian 12-year-old Hend Zaza, the youngest athlete competing at the Tokyo Olympics, exited in the preliminary round of the table tennis women’s singles on Saturday and then delivered a message to "fight for your dream" after overcoming the odds to even make it to Japan. 

Zaza, who was Syria’s flagbearer at the opening ceremony, had only been able to take part in two or three matches outside of her country each year due to the Syrian civil war, according to her coach, while frequent power outages also restricted her to occasional practise only during daytime hours. 

Taking on an opponent more than three times her age in 39-year-old Austrian Liu Jia, Zaza was defeated 4-0. 

At 12 years and 204 days, she became the youngest table tennis player in Olympic history and the youngest Olympian since 1992 when Spain’s Carlos Front competed in rowing. 

"It was very tough to mentally be prepared for (the Olympics) but I think I somehow managed to overcome this, and this is the part that I think I did the best during the match," said Zaza. "The main lesson was losing this match, especially in the first match. So next time, I will be working hard to pass the first, second, third round, because I want to play more in this competition. 

"For the last five years, I’ve been through many different experiences, especially with the war happening around the country and the postponement of the funding for the Olympics. 

"It was very tough, but I had to fight for it. And this is my message to everyone who is in the same situation – fight for your dream. Try hard regardless of the difficulties that you’re having and you will reach your hope." 

Liu, who has a 10-year-old daughter, said: "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!’ But there’s sport and there’s life. 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."

Skateboarder Sky Brown, 13, will become Britain’s youngest ever Summer Olympian when she competes next week.