Olympic athlete shuns US team in favor of the Middle East

Published July 29th, 2012 - 05:24 GMT
Zain in action
Zain in action

Zain Shaito, a Lebanese fencer, has goals beyond just competing at the Olympics this summer. The Lebanese, born and raised in the United States, has a message behind his participation in London.

The 22-year-old, who will be competing in the men's foil (fencing), hopes to change people's perceptions of Lebanon.

Shaito rejected a chance to represent the U.S. national team, after he felt there was a greater purpose in taking his talents to the country of his father.

Shaito, whose sister Mona will be also competing in fencing in the Olympics, told The Daily Star exclusively from London that his main goal this summer is to learn and gain experience since his medal hopes are on the next Games in Rio Di Janeiro in 2016.

My goal [for London] is to fight my hardest and use this as experience for the Olympic Games in Brazil in four years where I will have the best chance to [win a] medal.

In order to prepare for the Games, I went to Italy to train with the U.S. Olympic team and their fencing coaches. I stayed there for 10 days and trained hard, said Shaito, who grabbed a silver medal for Lebanon in the Arab Games 2011.

The siblings have sparked controversy in the U.S., as both were approached to represent the U.S. Olympic team, but chose instead to represent Lebanon through their Lebanese father.

It feels amazing to be on the biggest stage in sports. My whole life I've had a dream to represent the United States at the Olympics and had the opportunity to represent them this year in London, but I told them no. I felt there was a bigger purpose.

Lebanon has been through much war, bloodshed, tears, and families have been destroyed through civil and external war. I felt I could use my talent and skills from the U.S. and represent Lebanon and all its people, not just one sect of Lebanese, Shaito said.

Shaito, who is making his Olympic debut, has had a bright career in the American college system, as he and his sister helped Ohio State University win the U.S. National Collegiate Athletic Association title. He won the individual men's foil NCAA title, with Mona, still only 17, third in the women's foil.

Fencing takes a lot of coordination, speed, smartness, quick reactions, very good endurance and a fighting mentality, he said. I think Lebanon will show the world soon that we can do something in a sport, fencing, which is dominated by Europeans.

The siblings qualified for the world's biggest sporting event after making it during the Asian and Oceanic qualifiers in Wakayama, Japan, in April. And since then, they have been counting down the minutes to the Olympics.

It was a special moment. She [Mona] had to qualify a day before me so I knew when I qualified I would be following her to the Olympics.

The Olympic Lebanese committee has been doing their best to get money, but it's still been very hard. My parents have had to pay a lot of money for preparations. It's very hard on them, especially because me and my sister are both competing, Shaito said of the support he'd been receiving.

Fencing requires at least $35,000 a year. We really need that money to even have a chance to get a medal in the next Olympics. We've never had that money, so we just do the best we can.

To all the Lebanese in Lebanon and all over the world, I just want to say it is an honor to represent every Lebanese equally. I have never cared for what kind of Lebanese someone is, Christian or Sunni Muslim, or Shiite Muslim, or Druze.

I fight my hardest for my heritage, and the heritage is Lebanese. I hope everyone can take the example from the Olympic Games and how we represent Lebanon as one and come together as one country, because only together can a country become strong and prosperous, Shaito said.


What do you think about Zain's efforts? Can he get Lebanon united behind him? Tell us what you think below. 

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