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

Exclusive Tarek Hamdi claimed Karate gold for Saudi at the Islamic Solidarity Games in Turkey. (Supplied/SOPC)
Tarek Hamdi claimed Karate gold for Saudi at the Islamic Solidarity Games in Turkey. (Supplied/SOPC)
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Updated 21 August 2022

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

Saudi Olympic hero Tarek Hamdi recalls golden year after success at Islamic Solidarity Games in Turkey
  • The karate champion speaks exclusively to Arab News about his latest gold medal in Konya, his memorable performance at Tokyo 2020 and words of support from Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman

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.




Saudi's Tarek Hamdi on his way to winning gold in Konya. (Supplied/SOPC)

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.




Supplied/SOPC

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.”




Supplied/SOPC

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.


Saudi Arabia ‘will keep focused and fighting,’ Coach Renard says

Saudi Arabia ‘will keep focused and fighting,’ Coach Renard says
Updated 13 sec ago

Saudi Arabia ‘will keep focused and fighting,’ Coach Renard says

Saudi Arabia ‘will keep focused and fighting,’ Coach Renard says
  • ‘Don’t think that we are finished,’ Frenchman says after defeat by Poland
  • Green Falcons will play their final Group C game against Mexico on Wednesday

DUBAI: Saudi Arabia’s soccer players will remain focused and keep fighting until the World Cup’s last moments, their head coach said on Saturday after the team’s 2-0 loss to Poland.
“I am proud of my players and football is a team sport in which there is success and failure,” Herve Renard told a press conference. “The most important thing is that we have one match (left) and we must remain focused.”
After an epic win against Argentina in their opening game, the Green Falcons failed to soar to the same heights against Robert Lewandowski and his Polish teammates at the Education City Stadium in Qatar and so remain on three points in Group C.
Despite the disappointment, Renard said his team were far from giving in.
“We will play to the last second of this tournament and we will not give up,” he said.
“We will play the third match with the same energy and we need the fans to be present and fill the stadium against Mexico.
“We didn’t lose because of luck but because we weren’t so effective, and I will support all the players. I made a lot of changes after the first half to have a good reaction and get back into the game.”
The French coach said the reason he substituted Nawaf Al-Abed was because the player had suffered an ankle injury.
“I am very proud of what the players have achieved … we should have tied before the end of the first half,” Renard told Alkass Sports Channel, adding that his team had worked incredibly hard.
“The most important thing is that we remain standing here. And don’t you think that we are finished,” he said.
Poland’s coach Czeslaw Michniewicz was also full of praise for the Saudi team.
“They have good players,” he said. “The best for me is the captain, No. 10, Salem Al-Dowsari, and goalkeeper Mohammed Al-Owais, who is a great goalkeeper and saved dangerous balls from our players.”
Poland had gained a hard-fought victory “with two goals against a valuable team,” he said.
 


In the zone: Fans flock to Mrsool Park for festival of football

In the zone: Fans flock to Mrsool Park for festival of football
Updated 25 min 1 sec ago

In the zone: Fans flock to Mrsool Park for festival of football

In the zone: Fans flock to Mrsool Park for festival of football
  • ‘This is a really fun way to watch the World Cup,’ fan says
  • Live games, food and fun on offer as part of Riyadh Season

RIYADH: Saudi football fans unable to attend the World Cup in Doha have been enjoying the next best thing thanks to a designated fan zone inside Mrsool Park stadium.

Organized by the General Entertainment Authority as part of the Riyadh Season, the area features a giant screen for people to watch the game, as well as food and drinks stalls to keep them fed and watered.

On Saturday, the zone was full of fans hoping for a second win of the tournament — after the amazing victory against Argentina — but the Green Falcons came up short against Poland.

Football fan Ibtisam, who watched the game with her friends, was full of praise for the venue.

“The organization is really great and this is a really fun way to watch the World Cup and support our national team,” she said.

Because the game was being screened inside a real football stadium, the atmosphere was similar to that experienced by the traveling fans at the Education City Stadium in Qatar.

Abdulaziz Al-Subaie, who watched the game with his family, said: “It’s a great atmosphere and has allowed us to watch the game outdoors with the rest of the Kingdom.”

Riyadh Season had ensured the city was full of entertaining activities, he added.

Saleh Al-Subaie, who spent much of the match against Poland hugging his father because of the tension and excitement, was equally complimentary.

“I liked the fact that we have things to do here before the game and during halftime. Aside from watching the game we can enjoy fun games here with everyone.”

As well as watching the action on the big screen, fans were able to test their own football skills in a series of challenges or play one of the many video and virtual reality games.

Rawan Filimban said he hoped to attend the World Cup live one day but in the meantime thought the fan zone was a great alternative.

“Riyadh Season is really cool and watching the World Cup like this just adds to the fun factor. The fan zone in Mrsool Park is an experience I won’t forget.”


Mbappe double sinks Denmark and takes France into World Cup last 16

Mbappe double sinks Denmark and takes France into World Cup last 16
Updated 26 November 2022

Mbappe double sinks Denmark and takes France into World Cup last 16

Mbappe double sinks Denmark and takes France into World Cup last 16
  • Having scored four during France's victorious 2018 campaign and one against Australia, Mbappe now has seven goals in nine World Cup appearances
  • France were more wasteful in front of goal on this occasion

DOHA: Kylian Mbappe scored twice, including a late winner, as holders France edged Denmark 2-1 on Saturday to become the first team to reach the last 16 of the World Cup.
A potent French side knew a second victory in as many Group D outings would take them through to the knockout phase and they were well worth the lead that Mbappe gave them when he opened the scoring at Stadium 974 just after the hour mark.
However, Andreas Christensen soon equalized for the Danes and Les Bleus needed Mbappe to deliver again in the 86th minute as he turned in Antoine Griezmann’s cross to puncture the Danish resistance once and for all.
Having scored four during France’s victorious 2018 campaign and one against Australia, Mbappe now has seven goals in nine World Cup appearances.
Didier Deschamps’s side now have the luxury of going into their final group game against Tunisia knowing a draw will guarantee them top spot, and even a defeat may not prevent them finishing first.
Having come roaring back to batter Australia 4-1 in their opening match in Qatar, France were more wasteful in front of goal on this occasion but at least they did not come unstuck against opponents who have caused them problems before.
They were reigning champions when a defeat to the Danes knocked them out of the 2002 World Cup, while the sides played out the only goalless draw in 2018.
More recently Kasper Hjulmand’s side beat France home and away in this year’s Nations League, and it seemed that Deschamps had learned lessons from those two encounters.
If France were a shadow of their usual selves in Copenhagen in September, they were much better in this match, played in a pop-up stadium made of shipping containers on Doha’s waterfront.
Deschamps changed three of his back four, with Theo Hernandez at left-back in place of his injured elder brother Lucas and Raphael Varane coming in for his first game in over a month.
But the French attack was untouched from the Australia game.
If Olivier Giroud took the headlines then, here Ousmane Dembele was electric at times on the right, Griezmann excelled in an advanced midfield role, and Mbappe made the difference.
France’s pace, power and passing were all too sharp for the Euro 2020 semifinalists who were lucky to go in level at half-time.
There were some French appeals for a red card in the 19th minute when Mbappe burst onto a beautiful threaded through ball by Griezmann only to be hauled down by Christensen, but the Danish defender escaped with a yellow.
The holders’ best chances in the first half came from headers by Varane and Adrien Rabiot, but when Mbappe turned away from Joachim Andersen just before the hour mark and accelerated away, it was a sign that a goal was coming.
His shot was turned behind by Kasper Schmeichel, and Griezmann then wasted a great chance shortly after, but in the 61st minute Mbappe did score.
The Paris Saint-Germain superstar linked up brilliantly with Hernandez on the left and met his teammate’s cutback with a shot that beat Schmeichel thanks to a deflection off Christensen.
Denmark had offered little but suddenly they were level midway through the second half as Andersen nodded down a corner and his fellow defender Christensen headed home.
Hugo Lloris was then forced into a key save to deny Jesper Lindstrom and Martin Braithwaite grazed a post as Denmark threatened to turn the game completely on its head.
That would have been extremely harsh on France, even if they could only really have themselves to blame for not making more of their chances.
But Mbappe was not to be denied as he stole in front of Rasmus Kristensen at the back post with four minutes left to meet Griezmann’s cross with his thigh for his 31st international goal.


Five things we learned from Saudi Arabia’s 2-0 defeat to Poland

Five things we learned from Saudi Arabia’s 2-0 defeat to Poland
Updated 26 November 2022

Five things we learned from Saudi Arabia’s 2-0 defeat to Poland

Five things we learned from Saudi Arabia’s 2-0 defeat to Poland
  • Game was an entertaining encounter that should have seen more goals
  • Green Falcons dominated possession, had more chances

DUBAI: Saudi Arabia lost 2-0 to Poland at Education City in Qatar on Saturday and remain on three points after two games in World Cup Group C.
Here are five things we learned from the match:
Saudi Arabia deserved something
It was an entertaining encounter that should have contained more goals, and many of them could have gone to Saudi Arabia. There may have been concerns that the win over Argentina was so big that it would be hard for coach Herve Renard to get his players down from cloud nine and focus on the task at hand, but that was not the issue. The problem was just a lack of clinical finishing. But there was plenty to like about the performance, with Salem Al-Dawsari and Mohamed Kanno particularly impressive.
Saudi Arabia had more of the possession and more of the chances. Even if we take away the missed penalty, there were plenty of opportunities for them to score. Unlike in the win over Argentina when the first two attempts resulted in goals, there was just no way past Wojciech Szczesny. The Poland goalkeeper had a fine game and there were examples of shots flying wide and over from good positions.
On another day, Saudi Arabia would have taken a point from this game, but they were punished by refereeing decisions, their own mistakes, not taking their chances and Poland making the most of theirs.
Harsh first half for the Falcons
Saudi Arabia played well in the first half, which lasted 55 minutes, but all the major incidents in the period went against them. First, Poland’s Matty Cash should have been sent off. The Aston Villa defender was booked for a late tackle but just a few minutes later somehow got away with a dangerous challenge on Mohammed Al-Burayk.
Had a second yellow been shown then Cash would not have been in an advanced position after 39 minutes to pass to Robert Lewandowski who then set up Piotr Zielinski to fire home. It was a goal that came totally against the run of play but that is what happens in football and Saudi Arabia will feel aggrieved that Poland still had 11 men on the pitch.
And then there was the penalty that came in added time as Saleh Al-Shehri was brought down in the area. In truth, Salem Al-Dawsari’s spot kick was not the best but Al-Burayk should have done better with the rebound. Going in level at the break against 10 men would have produced a very different second half.
This is a new, confident Saudi Arabia
What a difference a win against Argentina makes. If anyone was tuning in without knowing anything about the teams, they would have thought that the men in green were the favorites, with players active at the highest level, and that the ones in blue and white were the underdogs.
There were questions as to whether Renard would set his team up in the same way for the second game, and he did. The same, brave, high line was there, the same pressing and even more energy. Saudi Arabia flew out of the blocks and went at Poland, who did not impress in their opening 0-0 draw with Mexico. The Poles were clearly rattled, as three yellow cards collected in the first half of the first half showed.
This is now a Saudi team that knows it can trouble European and South American opposition and does not back down. This is an attitude that needs to continue.
Saudi Arabia have home advantage
Saturday’s game may have officially taken place in Qatar but it could have been Riyadh, Jeddah or Dammam, such were the numbers of Saudi fans in the stadium. As well as the quantity, there was also quality, with noise levels reaching rarely heard heights at the tournament.
The atmosphere was something else and it spurred on the players. It also rattled the Poles who really struggled to settle. They were jeered when in possession, in contrast to the cheers that greeted Saudi Arabian possession. It took an opening goal before the Poles started to look even remotely comfortable. Whatever happens, the Saudi Arabian fans and the players have come together to make one of the stories of the World Cup, and Mexico will not be looking forward to visiting Lusail Iconic Stadium on Wednesday.
There is still all to play for and no reason to feel down
Fans will have to wait and see what happens in Saturday’s late game between Argentina and Mexico to know exactly what they have to do, but whatever happens, everybody would have accepted this position before the World Cup began. Three points from the first two games means the Falcons are in control of their destiny. A win over Mexico means that a place in the knockout stage is guaranteed. It remains to be seen if a draw will suffice.
Coach Renard will have to wait and see what happens with players who have collected knocks but there are still plenty of reasons to be cheerful. Saudi Arabia have shown that they can live with their opponents. Glory awaits and with tens of thousands of fans behind them next week then anything could happen. The defeat against Poland does not need to be a devastating one and nobody should feel down.


Lewandowski scores at World Cup, Poland beat Saudis 2-0

Lewandowski scores at World Cup, Poland beat Saudis 2-0
Updated 26 November 2022

Lewandowski scores at World Cup, Poland beat Saudis 2-0

Lewandowski scores at World Cup, Poland beat Saudis 2-0
  • The 34-year-old Lewandowski also set up the opener in the 40th minute when he kept the ball in play
  • Al-Owais denied Lewandowski from scoring a second goal late in the match

AL RAYYAN, Qatar: Robert Lewandowski finally scored at the World Cup on Saturday, helping Poland beat Saudi Arabia 2-0 and boosting his team’s chances of reaching the knockout stages.
Lewandowski shed tears after scoring in the 82nd minute. He raced toward the corner with his arms outstretched, then stayed slumped on the field as teammates rushed to congratulate him. He got up, rubbed his face, and blew a kiss to the crowd.
It was the Poland forward’s first World Cup goal in his fifth appearance at the tournament.
The 34-year-old Lewandowski also set up the opener in the 40th minute when he kept the ball in play after goalkeeper Mohammed Al-Owais’ initial block, then laid it back for Piotr Zielinski to knock in.
Al-Owais denied Lewandowski from scoring a second goal late in the match.
Poland was scrambling for long periods at the Education City Stadium as the Saudi team was pushed forward by enthusiastic fans in what seemed like a home game.
Poland goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny saved Salem Al-Dawsari’s penalty at the end of the first half. He then blocked Mohammed Al-Burayk’s shot from the rebound.
Poland will next face Argentina, while Saudi Arabia will meet Mexico in their last Group C games.