Destination Reached, a New Journey Begins for Mahmoud

Aram Mahmoud has faced many difficult situations – too many for him to immediately recall — before and immediately after moving from Syria to the Netherlands in 2015, but now he looks back with a certain feeling of fulfilment. The Syrian became the first badminton player to be included in the IOC Olympic Refugee team which was announced on Tuesday.

Coming through those difficulties defined for Mahmoud who he was and what he was capable of.

“There were a lot (of difficulties), but every time I think I’m in the Olympics, I’m very happy that I’ve been through those difficult situations,” says Mahmoud. “They motivate me to use them and forget about everything else and just focus on my goals and what I want for the future. I’m happy and satisfied with where I am now. It’s been a very long journey for me over the last couple of years. If I think how much sweat and effort and money I had to sacrifice, I’m actually very happy with who I am now.”

The 23-year-old moved from his native Syria to the Netherlands in 2015 following civil unrest in his country. Mahmoud, who had earlier played for Syria, resumed playing internationally in April 2018 under the Dutch flag and a year later was identified for the IOC’s Refugee Athlete Scholarship programme. On Tuesday, he was named among the 29-member IOC Refugee Olympic Team that will compete at Tokyo 2020.

“It means a lot,” says Mahmoud, who mentions Gerard Thijssen, Ingrid Schrijer and Kian Tan as those who helped him get on track with his badminton career in the Netherlands. “I’m very happy and grateful for this opportunity to represent the refugee team at the Olympics. My family (in Syria) were very happy and proud, as I’ve been working for many years to have this chance. It means a lot for them as well.”

Among Mahmoud’s many challenges was finding a consistent training base, especially through last year, when training centres were closed due to the pandemic. But his efforts at seeking solutions paid off when he visited the Centre of Excellence in Denmark. A one-week visit turned into a longer project and he is now thrilled at being part of a professional training set-up for the first time in his life.

“Before the pandemic I made my own group at Almere and was training with my friends. After a few months the Netherlands closed again and luckily I went to the Centre of Excellence in Denmark for one week, and I asked if there was place for me to join the group. They welcomed me and since January I’ve been in Denmark. I came for one month but I liked it very much and the atmosphere and training were very nice, so I decided to stay. I played four tournaments, and I’ve been playing team matches in Germany and Netherlands.

“I like to practice here. It’s intensive, and I have sparring partners who are high level and the coaches are also very good and they can help me improve in the technical or tactical part. I see myself improving over the last six months, and over the two weeks of tournaments I could see my game improving.”

Six others who are training at the Centre of Excellence, including USA’s Beiwen Zhang, have qualified to the Olympics.

“When I play and practice, it won’t be a big difference when I play at tournaments. The level is the same, or the level at practice is higher than matches. In the beginning it was hard and I was struggling a bit. Before coming here I hadn’t practiced for month. But they helped me and I pushed myself to follow the group, to give everything, and now I see what I did was very good. Now it’s as good as I wish.

“They know what we need before matches and after matches. That’s a big part of practice. I like to be in this kind of environment. I look forward to training every single day. And I give my best in practice.”

For Mahmoud, the journey has been long and difficult, but he has finally arrived at a place where he was meant to be. With Tokyo 2020, a new journey will begin.

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