A beach in Los Angeles is an unlikely place to find a symbol for hope in the Middle East. But Venice Beach lifeguard Azad Al-Barazi is hoping to be exactly that when he competes in his second Olympics next week as a swimmer for Syria.
Al-Barazi, 28, is a dual citizen of the United States and Syria, but he will represent the latter by way of his parents’ heritage. While the University of Hawaii graduate thinks of himself as more of an American than a Syrian after more than 20 years in the country, he uses the pool to put a spotlight on the strife in Syria.
When he made his Olympic debut in 2012, Syria was just beginning to collapse into civil war and Al-Barazi hoped that a rebuild was soon to come for the war-torn country. He told Sports Illustrated at the time that the country hit rock bottom and there was nowhere to go but up.
Four years later, and it seems he was overly optimistic. Things haven’t improved in the country, and huge amounts of refugees are fleeing the country. For Al-Barazi, the Olympics are an opportunity to shed light on the struggles of Syrian people.
“What’s going on in Syria is tragic and heartbreaking,” Al-Barazi said. “Anything that brings positivity to the country of Syria is an inspiration.… It kind of puts things in perspective, how blessed I am to be here and live here and have the opportunity to be a Syrian-American.”
Due to the conflict in Syria, funds for Olympic athletes were shelved by the country, and Al-Barazi had to fund his own trip to Rio de Janeiro. When he arrived in Brazil, he was detained in the airport for three hours because the Syrian federation didn’t tell the International Olympic Committee he was coming.
When he hits the pool in Rio, Al-Barazi is far from a favorite to grab a medal. In London, his time of 1:03.48 in the 100-meter breaststroke wasn’t good enough to advance out of his heat, but his goal is to finish in under a minute this time around.
“Hypothetically speaking, if I swim 59.99 and finish dead last, I’m satisfied,” he told Hawaii Athletics. “I’m setting up to go 59.99 or better and make the finals, and that will make history for Syria. I’m trying to make history.”
Syria has won only three medals in the country’s history. The lone gold came in 1996 when Ghada Shouaa earned the top spot in the women’s heptathlon.