With discipline, purpose, and the mind of a champion, Saudi Olympian Tarek Hamdi reflects on that Tokyo Games final and receiving a surprise call from Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. He is one of the five talents being celebrated by NEOM in its #IamTheChange campaign to mark Saudi National Day.
“It was my mother who pushed me to compete in karate on a professional level,” starts Olympian karate athlete Tarek Hamdi. “My dad’s main goal was to focus on my education.” Born in Jubail, Saudi Arabia 23 years ago, the eldest of five siblings recalls being a hyperactive child, playing football and only exploring karate at age 10. “I had seen a lot of karate in Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee films, but I never imagined that the stunts they did on-screen were real,” he recalls. “The first time I went to a lesson, I was fascinated by all the gear, by the karate suit and the different colored belts. I didn’t think of it as a fighting sport.”
When Hamdi took home a bronze medal at the World Junior & Cadet Karate Championships in Spain in 2013, he knew he would pursue the sport for the long-term. “I thought, I’m going to do this,” he affirms. “Karate has incredible values. Respect of elders, respect of parents, sportsmanship, fair competition, how to remain calm and control emotions so that nothing can sway or upset you. It’s all about strength of mind and mindset.”
At the Tokyo Olympics this year, Hamdi’s spirit was put to the test when – in the final fight for gold in the weight category +75kg – the referee disqualified him for allegedly using excessive violence, and awarded gold to Iranian Sajjad Ganjzadeh. “I was under huge pressure,” recalls Hamdi of the fight. “I had defeated the Japanese contender and I was the last Saudi representative. Saudi hadn’t won any medals and it felt as if there was a huge burden on my shoulders. But the last fight had humbled me and took away from that stress I was experiencing and I entered that fight as a warrior, with nothing but winning on my mind.” A message for youth who watched him take home silver when it was largely reported that he deserved gold, Hamdi says, “If you have a goal, it doesn’t matter how hard it is – you need to pursue it and not give up. Don’t listen to doubt or negativity around you; always be ambitious. There may be people around you who don’t understand your goal and may try and discredit you. Don’t hate them, they just don’t understand. Always look for first place and nothing but first place, in spite of the challenges you may face. Never settle.” He believes karate to be an excellent sport for young people to pursue, stating, “It teaches great values and life lessons – most importantly, respect. Respect for winning and losing, respect for competitors, respect for time. The sport is humbling and I think it is an important quality for kids to learn and practice.”
Training for five to six hours each day and following a strict diet, Hamdi’s struggle today is balancing his studies in marketing alongside his sport. His hobbies include swimming – he lives on the coast – playing beach volleyball, and spending time with his family. Along with their support, he knows he can count on his country. “When Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman called me right after the fight, I could hear in his voice that he was happy and proud of me,” recalls Hamdi with emotion. “I honestly couldn’t believe it; it took two days for it to set in that HRH had actually called me. I will be forever grateful for that phone call and for his faith in me. He said to me, ‘Whatever happened, you have won the gold medal for Saudi.’” Even though his country awarded him with a five million riyal gold medal upon his return, his ambition hasn’t been curbed. “If karate is recognized as an official sport at the Paris 2024 Olympics, I have no doubt that Saudi as a team will achieve many goals,” says Hamdi. “And that I will win gold.”