JEDDAH: Saudi Arabia’s Olympic hero Tarek Hamdi continues to make history.
Last week, the karate champion dominated a strong field to take gold in the 75 kg kumite competition at the fifth Islamic Solidarity Games in Konya, Turkey.
The triumph came almost exactly a year after his silver at Tokyo 2020, when he was only denied gold after a controversial disqualification in the final against Iran’s Sajjad Ganjzadeh.
Arab News met Hamdi to discuss his latest win and recall those memorable, career-defining days in Tokyo.
Congratulations Tarek, tell us about your achievement and the tournament in general.
Praise be to God, I achieved 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 at this tournament, where I hadn’t won before.
This is the second time that I participated in the Islamic Solidarity Games. In 2017, I took part in Baku, Azerbaijan, but did not achieve any success, and this time I was determined to win gold. I managed to win in the 84 kg weight division to complete the set of medals at the international competitions I’ve taken part in.
This tournament in general is a very difficult and tough one, especially in karate. We had a target of five golds across the weight categories, but we only achieved a gold and two bronzes. I congratulate my brothers Sultan Al-Zahrani and Saud Al-Bashir on their success, and wish the best of luck to Faraj Al-Nashiri and Fahd Al-Khathami in the future.
Our achievement came thanks to the hard work and teamwork from everyone at 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 at the Tokyo Olympics. Tell us about the pre-tournament preparations.
To be honest, before the Olympics, I was nervous, not because of the tournament itself, but because after we had finished the pre-Games qualifying competition in Paris, I had not trained for almost a week or 10 days.
I was anxious, which is normal for any athlete. You’re eager to get back in action, especially when a big championship is so close. I said this to the coach, and he assured me: “Don’t worry, I’m sure in three or four days maximum you will be back in form.”
Ahead of the tournament, the coach, Mounir Afkir, and I had met to plan for the training camp for the Olympics. I told the coach that I will turn up and give everything I have in training. The rest, like exercise planning, schedules and scouting of opponents, I trust him with.
Initially, our schedule consisted of two to three hours of physical exercise each morning, and then every two days would have two hours where we would analyze our nine opponents, studying their style, their strengths and weaknesses, and their game plans. We worked on solutions for all these things.
After that, we would go into the karate exercises for about two and a half to three hours. At the start of the camp, I was suffering 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 eventually be to my benefit. When I was tired, I would feel satisfied and my confidence would increase at the same time, and my focus was to achieve Olympic gold.
A week before traveling to Japan, coach Mounir told me: “I am seeing the gold medal.” I told him that I had been seeing the gold for a while and was confident in my abilities to achieve it, and that the coach’s words and trust had raised my confidence further to do so.
How did you feel the day before the start of your Olympic participation?
The night before the start of the Olympic karate competition on Aug. 6, I could hardly sleep at all. I managed about two hours and I was so tired that I kept it a secret from the coach, and drank a lot of coffee in order to regain my energy. But I couldn’t and instead had a headache on the day of the matches. There were also suspicions that we had mixed with players who had tested positive (for COVID-19). The concerns proved unfounded but the situation had caused confusion for me, and we were isolated in a warm-up hall separate from other athletes. But we overcame this issue and the warm-up exercises were good and our confidence was high.
The group matches started uncomfortably, how did you feel at that point?
My first match was against a Croatian fighter (Ivan Kvesic), and when I got on the mat, I literally do not know what happened. Although I was not cautious in my approach, the result ended 2-1 in his favor. I couldn’t see properly, and after the fight my coach left me to my own thoughts. I felt really tired, but said to myself “I did not come here to lose.”
I promised myself that I would return with the gold medal, and I turned this loss turned into a positive in my next match (a win against Brian Irr of the US).
Next, 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 semifinals.
After qualifying from the group stages, what were your plans as a player and coach?
Before the semifinal, our game plan changed. We started planning for each opponent in different ways. Mounir kept saying that my strengths are my speed and my feet and I must take advantage of them. People were asking me if I was more relaxed now that I was guaranteed a medal, and my answer was “no.” When I fought Araga, I was telling myself, “I’m closer to my dream.” The focus was on reaching the final, and thank God I won and achieved that.
Tell us about the final.
The final match was completely different, I was in a strange state and I was very impulsive.
I started the match by scoring three points and then I scored another and I was leading 4-0. (Ganjzadeh) scored a point and it became 4-1.
Then came that kick, and the Iranian player fell — it did not even cross my mind that I would be disqualified. I was even signalling to my coach to try and calm me down because I was already so charged up.
The longer he stayed on the mat, I began to get nervous, but even after he was carried out on stretcher I did not think that I would be disqualified. I was thinking “this is my gold,” but when I saw the judges gather, I started to get pessimistic. I walked over to my coach and could see the look of concern on his face. The referees came back and took their decision to disqualify me.
I was not expecting this decision at all, and mentally I collapsed. My coach was distraught, my mother was distraught and so were the Saudi people. I walked off the arena and was in state of shock of course — the coach was talking to me but I wasn’t taking anything in.
I was walking and crying, and then I met the Minister of Sports Prince Abdulaziz bin Turki, and his deputy.
Prince Abdulaziz grabbed me and said: “Why are you crying? You achieved a great thing. Raise your head, the medal was taken from you.”
You then received a surprise call from Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. What did he say to you?
I was still sad and crying because of the loss of gold, but then Prince Abdulaziz hands me his phone and says “the crown prince wants to talk to you.”
I was not comprehending what was happening, and when I grabbed the phone, the crown prince said: “You’re a hero, congratulations. Keep your head high, you raised the flag of the Kingdom, you are the winner and you are the gold and you shouldn’t cry.”
He was very proud. I told him that I came to achieve the gold, and his response was, to the letter: “You did achieve gold.” I cannot describe how the words from the crown prince made me feel.
But those words are not a surprise from Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and as athletes we are very fortunate to have him as our leader.
The moment of disqualification was awful, but everything that happened after that was beautiful. Had it not been for this scenario, maybe news of the event would not have spread so widely.
This moment has also place more responsibility on myself and my fellow athletes, and has raised expectations and ambitions. Our goal is to raise the flag of Saudi Arabia even higher at international competitions. As His Highness Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said, “The sky is the limit for our ambitions.”
After returning home, there was a reception in your honor with the crown prince.
When we arrived in Jeddah, the reception was wonderful, very special and festive, which I was not expecting. There was big crowd 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 said to me at the time that “you are golden in our eyes” and many other beautiful words. I thanked him for everything he has given us and promised that we will continue to aim for gold and to raise the Kingdom’s flag at every international meeting, God willing.
It was a beautiful meeting and I am very proud of it.
I was so happy to see my pictures in 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 great responsibility, and God willing, I am up to this responsibility.