by Majd Eddin Ghazal

As an athlete, sport seems to be everything – the be-all and the end-all.

But there are times in life when sport doesn’t matter. It becomes meaningless. I learnt that in 2012.

Trying to train for the Olympics with what was happening in Syria: it just wasn’t possible. No one in my country was worried about sport. Not even me.

Towards the end of 2011 things got pretty bad, but thankfully the area I lived in was okay, it was safe. But that doesn’t mean we escaped all the problems.

I remember one training session in Damascus, not long before the London Olympics, when the city was bombed – a shell exploded near the high jump area where I was training.

I ran straight home and didn’t leave the house for weeks. I was too scared. Sport slipped way down the priorities, with simple things being all that mattered: having enough to eat, to drink, making sure your friends and family were safe.

The previous year, I had jumped 2.28m to qualify for the Olympics, but when I got to London my mind was all over the place. The best I cleared was 2.16m. I was so sad, and all I could think about was the situation back home.

In all honesty, it’s a time I don’t want to remember.

Majd Eddin Ghazal during some weights training (Michelle Sammet)

Four years later, I went to my third Olympics in Rio, but things went wrong for a different reason. I had been flying that summer, clearing 2.36m in Beijing just a few months before the Olympics.

This is my year, I thought. But it wasn’t.

I was struggling with anaemia and when I came out to jump in the Olympic final, I was so exhausted and dizzy that I couldn’t warm up properly – couldn’t stretch or jump.

I couldn’t see properly and had constant headaches. In the final I still cleared 2.29m, but it wasn’t enough. I needed 4cm more for a medal.

Going into 2017, things were different. My coach told me I could take a medal at the World Championships in London – I believed him.

“Who knows Ghazal, coming from Syria?” he’d say, trying to motivate me. “But you have a chance to fight with Barshim in the final.”

Times had changed in the high jump. Years before you might jump 2.40m and not win, but in London we knew someone could win with far less than that. Nobody ever knows in the high jump. It’s one of the best things about the event.

Majd Eddin Ghazal during some weights training (Michelle Sammet)

That week in London was when everything changed for me. I jumped 2.29m to finish third, becoming the second Syrian ever after heptathlete Ghada Shouaa to win a world medal.

Back home, all the people were so happy because before that nobody had ever got a medal for the high jump. For a Syrian track and field athlete to be at the World Championships and fighting with the big names, it put the sport back into people’s minds.  

In Syria it can be tough, trying to make people aware of our sport. Football and basketball are the first things everyone thinks of, but ever since London people are starting to be aware of athletics.

But we have problems.

These days, I mix my time between Syria and Oman, where my coach is based. But when I’m back home I don’t see the structure we need to develop the next generation in track and field.

It was different when I was young. There were other people always training and I’d watch them: learning how they eat, sleep, train. To become a successful athlete it’s important for people to see the future. We need to do a lot of work with grassroots athletes.

To me, sport should be just as important as mathematics in our schools.

When things were at their worst, sport was no longer important for Syrians, but that’s not how it should be today.

I see its importance when I travel to countries all around the world and my hope – my wish – is that my country will also realise this.

I know I have to play my part.

It’s why I’m working so hard to achieve big things, to get over 2.33m this year and make sure of my place at next year’s Olympics.

Majd Eddin Ghazal during some weights training (Michelle Sammet)

Sometimes that means asking for outside help. When I won the Asian Championships in Doha earlier this year I cleared 2.31m, but that was with my coach there watching, instructing. But he couldn’t travel to my next competitions in Shanghai and Nanjing and it wasn’t the same: my best was 2.26m.

A couple of weeks later, I went to Rome and I spoke to my manager about finding someone to help me during the competition, to see my technical mistakes and tell me how to adjust. We spoke with Ruth Beitia over lunch and she agreed to help.

It’s hard to beat an Olympic champion for good advice. She did video and gave some feedback during the competition and from there, things got better.

When you’re jumping well, as I am now, you start to feel like you can fly. Landing on that mat and knowing you didn’t touch the bar: it’s the best feeling there is.

I won my first ever Diamond League in London this month and the countdown is on now to Doha. There’s still two months to go, but I think about it all the time.

It may be a World Championship, but it’s still a stepping stone. The Olympics in 2020 is what it’s all about. I’ll be 33 then, and it will probably be my last Games.

But whether it’s Tokyo or Doha, I know if I can become a champion, the effect back home will be huge. Track and field would be all over Syrian TV, and so many young people will be inspired to take up the sport.

We have so much talent in Syria, but right now we just don’t have enough people working to develop it. I’ll try my very best to change that.