On this World Refugee Day, we celebrate the indomitable spirit of individuals who have overcome adversity and found solace in the power of sport. Among them is Mahdi Ahmadian, a 27-year-old table tennis player and IOC Refugee Athlete Scholarship-holder. With dreams set on qualifying for the Paris 2024 Olympic Games and making history becoming the first-ever table tennis player in the IOC Refugee Olympic Team, Ahmadian’s path to success has been far from easy.
Born in Iran to a family deeply entrenched in the world of sports, Ahmadian was captivated by table tennis at a tender age. His father, a national-level competitor in Iran’s prestigious table tennis Super League, became his greatest source of inspiration.
Growing up, Ahmadian’s childhood dream was to qualify for the Olympics one day. At just eight years old, he embraced the sport, drawn to its exhilarating pace and technical finesse. Reflecting on that, he shares, “I have been thinking about the Olympics since I was a child. Sometimes I would sleep and dream that I was representing my nation in the Olympics.” His interest in table tennis was further kindled by his family, as both his father and brother are players. Together, they immersed themselves in the world of table tennis, watching countless matches together. Ahmadian added, “We definitely watched more table tennis than cartoons while growing up!”
By the age of 16, Ahmadian’s talent led him to train alongside his national team, where he had the opportunity to refine his skills among some of the country’s finest players. However, circumstances shifted, and the national team ceased selecting him. Undeterred by this setback, he made the courageous decision to leave his country in pursuit of his sporting aspirations.
His journey towards a brighter future began with a crossing to Türkiye and then Greece. “I was on a tiny plastic boat with my three-month-old baby and around 45 other refugees. When the motor failed and waves threatened to sink us, we had to lighten the load. I tossed my backpack, but saved my table tennis racket. Eventually, we reached one of the GReek islands. That table tennis racket remains a cherished reminder of our survival and a symbol of hope.”
Determined to find a place where he could nurture his talent, Ahmadian embarked on a remarkable journey on foot, enduring hardships along the way until he reached Austria, his current host country.
In Austria, with the assistance of local refugee support organisations, he found a table tennis club, Badener AC, and actively participated in the Austrian Bundesliga. There, he not only found a haven to further develop his skills but also achieved a diploma in table tennis coaching, becoming a beacon of hope and inspiration for others. Ahmadian is now also a recipient of the With Future in Mind Scholarship, providing the beneficiaries with the best possible opportunities to achieve their goals through identifying additional training opportunities and increasing the number of events the athlete can participate in.
For Ahmadian, the road to the Olympics had been laden with obstacles and challenges. However, he remained resolute in his determination to make a difference and inspire others who find themselves in similarly difficult circumstances. The desire to set a positive example for his children also drove his unwavering commitment to the sport he loves. He firmly believes that dreams should never be abandoned, as hard work and unwavering faith can lead to remarkable achievements. “I want to prove to other refugees who are also caught in difficult situations that we should never stop dreaming. We should always work hard while looking for the light from God and just keep doing our jobs well to achieve our dreams,” he added.
Today, as a recipient of the prestigious IOC Refugee Athlete Scholarship, Mahdi Ahmadian is steadfast in his pursuit of a place on the IOC Refugee Olympic Team in Paris 2024. With the IOC’s support, his Olympic dream edges closer to reality. Additionally, the ITTF Group, recognising his talent and dedication, will support him on his quest to an Olympic qualification, as well as an invitation to a specialised training camp.
As we commemorate World Refugee Day, we are reminded of the profound impact that sport can have in transforming lives and providing hope. Ahmadian’s story is a testament to the resilience of the human spirit and the power of dreams. Let us rally behind him and others like him, supporting their aspirations and fostering a world where opportunities are not limited by circumstances.