Brother and sister Olympic fencers Zain and Mona Shaito hope to alter people’s perceptions of Lebanon during the London Olympics.
For much of the past 30 years Lebanon has been known internationally primarily for prolonged civil strife and, more recently, for taking in vast numbers of refugees fleeing the disturbances in neighbouring Syria.
But Zain Shaito told AFP that his involvement, and that of his sister, in the Olympics showed there was more to Lebanon than political violence.
“Sports can change minds,” Zain, 22, told AFP. “The Olympic Games unite people and make them forget about fighting.”
Although born and brought up in the United States, the siblings qualified to represent the Middle East state through their Lebanese-born father.
But their mutual interest in fencing started courtesy of their mother, Kimberly. Although the younger by four years, it was Mona Zaito who was the first to take up the sport.
“I started fencing when I was nine,” Mona said. “My mom convinced me to try it after seeing it on television. We were living in Michigan at the time and when we moved to Dallas, that’s when I started.”
For Zain, his first sporting love was ice hockey.
“I was mad about hockey and I dreamt of playing in the NHL (North America’s National Hockey League). But one day I broke my hand and my mother thought the best way to recover was through fencing.”
They both stuck with the sport and this year they helped Ohio State University win the US National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) fencing title.
Zain Shaito also won the individual men’s foil NCAA title, with Mona, still only 17, third in the women’s foil.
Their inseparable sporting lives — they both fence left-handed — continued during the Asian and Oceanic Olympic fencing qualifiers in Wakayama, Japan, in April.
“I was under pressure because my sister qualified the day before,” recalled Zain, a fan of the Dallas Cowboys American football team.
“It was a special moment because I knew when I qualified I would be following her to the Olympics.”
Mona, who too was taken aback by getting to the Games.
“When I needed two more touches, the pressure was big. I had to take a risk. When I qualified I was stunned.”