By Ahmed Abd El Latif
(Reuters) – Teenager Heba Allejji, Syria’s first Olympic table-tennis player, says she wants to show that the sport is alive and well in her country despite the civil war that is driving many fellow players abroad.
The 19-year-old, ranked 667 in the world, was awarded a spot by the International Olympic committee under the tripartite category, which is available to countries that had an average of fewer than eight athletes at the past two Games.
“Syria has a lot of people playing table tennis … (but) the number who stay is so little,” she told Reuters by phone on Monday from government-held central Damascus, where she trains and pursues her pharmacy studies.
She began playing table tennis a decade ago and was spotted by a coach after her brother brought her to play at a center close to their home.
Originally from the province of Hasaka, she moved to Damascus after conditions became “inappropriate”.
“The most important thing for me is to show a superb level and to represent my country well. I want to confirm that we are still able to play and train in Syria,” she said.
“If I face players such as the Lebanese player (Mariana Sahakian), who won the gold in the West Asian Championship that qualified her for the Olympics, I can win …
“It will be difficult when I face players from China and South Korea.”
A number of former Syrian table-tennis players have emerged among the refugees that have fled the war-torn country. They include national player Tesnim Nebhen, who is waiting to obtain Turkish citizenship, according to Turkish publication Daily Sabah.
Allejji said she used to train in China and would travel abroad regularly for camps, but she had to stop two years ago when the cost got too high.
She said the Syrian authorities would provide equipment — which has often been hard to come by — ahead of the Games, and a team of seven athletes would compete in swimming, athletics, weightlifting and judo.
Allejji said she was already looking beyond Rio to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, and having participated in competitions in Hong Kong, Qatar and Malaysia, hopes to continue to be in the spotlight beyond this year’s games.
“When players from Syria do not have a grant or the necessary attention from the state, they go back home,” she said. “They receive calls for training only one month before any tournament. I don’t want to face this fate.”
(Writing by Brenda Goh,; Editing by Neville Dalton)