Saudi Olympic hero Tarek Hamdi recalls golden year after success at Islamic Solidarity Games in Turkey

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JEDDAH: Saudi Olympic hero Tarek Hamdi continues to write history.

Last week, the karate champion dominated a strong field to win gold in the 75kg kumite competition at the fifth Islamic Solidarity Games in Konya, Turkey.

The triumph came almost exactly a year after his silver medal at Tokyo 2020, when he was only denied gold after a controversial disqualification in the final against Iranian Sajjad Ganjzadeh.

Arab News caught up with Hamdi to discuss his latest victory and reminisce about those memorable and career-defining days in Tokyo.

Congratulations Tarek, tell us about your achievement and the tournament in general.

Praise be to God, I won a gold medal at the Islamic Solidarity Games in Turkey. It is a great achievement, and I am certainly proud and honored to raise the flag of the Kingdom in this tournament, where I have never won before.

This is the second time that I have taken part in the Islamic Solidarity Games. In 2017, I participated in Baku, Azerbaijan, but did not achieve any success, and this time I was determined to win gold. I managed to win in the weight category of 84 kg to complete the set of medals at international competitions in which I participated.

This tournament in general is very difficult and difficult, especially in karate. We had a goal of five gold medals in all weight classes, but only got one gold and two bronze. I congratulate my brothers Sultan Al-Zahrani and Saud Al-Bashir on their success and wish Faraj Al-Nashiri and Fahd Al-Khathami good luck for the future.

Our success has come through the hard work and teamwork of everyone in the training camps of the Saudi Karate Federation and the Saudi Olympic and Paralympic Committee, and we will continue, God willing, to pursue more triumphs.

A few days ago, it was the anniversary of your silver medal at the Tokyo Olympics. Tell us about the preparations before the tournament.

To be honest, before the Olympics I was nervous, not because of the tournament itself, but because after finishing the pre-Games qualifying competition in Paris, I hadn’t trained for nearly one week or 10 days.

I was anxious, which is normal for any athlete. You can’t wait to get back into action, especially when a big championship is so close. I told the coach, and he assured me: “Don’t worry, I’m sure in three or four days maximum you’ll be back in shape.

Before the tournament, the coach, Mounir Afkir, and I had met to plan the training camp for the Olympic Games. I told the coach that I would come and give my all in training. For the rest, such as the planning of exercises, the schedules and the identification of opponents, I trust him.

Saudi Tarek Hamdi on his way to gold in Konya. (Provided/SOPC)

Initially, our program consisted of two to three hours of physical exercise each morning, then every two days, two hours where we analyzed our nine opponents, studied their style, their strengths and weaknesses and their game plans. We have been working on solutions for all of these things.

After that, we would go into karate exercises for about two and a half to three hours. At the beginning of the camp, I suffered from fatigue, frankly. I was training hard and I kept telling myself that it will be worth it in the end, that any fatigue now will end up being to my advantage. When I was tired, I felt satisfied and my confidence increased at the same time, and my goal was to achieve Olympic gold.

A week before going to Japan, coach Mounir told me: “I see the gold medal.” I told him that I had been seeing gold for a while and had confidence in my abilities to achieve it, and that the coach’s words and confidence had made me even stronger to achieve it.

How did you feel the day before the start of your Olympic participation?

The day before the Olympic karate competition started on August 6, I could barely sleep. I managed about two hours and I was so tired that I hid it from the coach, and I drank a lot of coffee to regain my energy. But I couldn’t and I had a headache on game day. There were also suspicions that we had mixed in with players who had tested positive (for COVID-19). The concerns turned out to be unfounded but the situation left me confused and we were isolated in a separate warm-up room from the other athletes. But we overcame this problem and the warm-up exercises were good and our confidence was high.

The group matches started uncomfortably, how did you feel then?

My first match was against a Croatian fighter (Ivan Kvesic), and when I got on the mat, I literally don’t know what happened. Although I wasn’t careful in my approach, the result ended 2-1 in his favor. I couldn’t see properly and after the fight my trainer left me to my own thoughts. I felt really tired, but I said to myself “I didn’t come here to lose”.

I promised myself to come back with the gold medal, and I turned that loss into a positive in my next game (a win against Brian Irr of the United States).

Then, against the Iranian opponent (Ganjzadeh), the match ended in a draw. My Canadian opponent (Daniel Gaysinsky) was then eliminated and I qualified from my group in second place to face the Japanese (Ryutaro Araga) in the semi-finals.


Supplied/SOPC

After qualifying for the group stages, what were your plans as a player and coach?

Before the semi-final, our game plan changed. We started planning each opponent in different ways. Mounir kept saying that my strengths were my speed and my feet and that I had to take advantage of them. People asked me if I was more relaxed now that I was guaranteed a medal, and my answer was “no”. When I fought Araga, I was like, “I’m closer to my dream.” The goal was to reach the final, and thank God I won and I got there.

Tell us about the final.

The final match was completely different, I was in a weird state and was very impulsive.

I started the match by scoring three points then I scored another one and I was leading 4-0. (Ganjzadeh) scored a point and it became 4-1.

Then came this kick, and the Iranian player fell – it didn’t even occur to me that I would be disqualified. I even waved at my trainer to try to calm me down because I was already so loaded.

The longer he was on the mat, the more nervous I started to get, but even after he was carried on a stretcher, I didn’t think I would be disqualified. I thought “this is my gold”, but when I saw the judges getting together, I started to get pessimistic. I walked over to my trainer and could see the worried expression on his face. The referees came back and made their decision to disqualify me.

I did not expect this decision at all, and mentally I collapsed. My coach was upset, my mother was upset and so were the Saudi people. I walked out of the arena and of course was in shock – the coach was talking to me but I wasn’t taking anything.

I was walking and crying, then I met Sports Minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Turki and his deputy.

Prince Abdulaziz grabbed me and said, “Why are you crying? You have accomplished a great thing. Raise your head, the medal has been taken away from you.


Supplied/SOPC

You then received a surprise call from Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. What did he tell you?

I was still sad and crying because of the loss of gold, but Prince Abdulaziz hands me his phone and says “the crown prince wants to talk to you”.

I didn’t understand what was going on, and when I picked up the phone, the crown prince said, “You are a hero, congratulations. Hold your head up high, you have raised the flag of the Kingdom, you are the winner and you are the gold and you should not cry.

He was very proud. I told him I was coming to get the gold, and his response was, literally, “You got the gold.” I cannot describe how the Crown Prince’s words made me feel.

But these words come as no surprise from Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and as athletes we are very lucky to have him as our leader.

The moment of the disqualification was horrible, but everything that happened after was magnificent. Without this scenario, perhaps news of the event would not have spread so widely.

This moment also placed more responsibility on myself and my fellow athletes, and raised expectations and ambitions. Our goal is to raise the flag of Saudi Arabia even higher in international competitions. As His Highness Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said, “The sky is the limit for our ambitions”.

After he returned home, there was a reception in your honor with the Crown Prince.

When we arrived in Jeddah, the welcome was wonderful, very special and festive, which I did not expect. There were a lot of people in the arrival hall and I received a new award from the Ministry of Sports, which had been announced before the Olympics.

I was extremely excited to meet the Crown Prince. He told me at the time that “you are golden in our eyes” and many other nice words. I thanked him for all he gave us and promised that we will continue to aim for gold and raise the Kingdom flag at every international meeting, God willing.

It was a great meeting and I am very proud of it.

I was so happy to see my photos on the streets and on posters, and my image was placed on the Kingdom Tower in Riyadh. The appreciation I received from the government and the people makes me so proud. It’s a big responsibility, and God willing, I’m up to that responsibility.


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