OKUHARA Nozomi: Inspiring the next generation in challenging times

Okuhara Nozomi of Japan competes against VU Thi Trang of Vietnam in the badminton Women's Single at the 2016 Rio Olympics (Photo by Amin M. Jamali/Getty Images)
Okuhara Nozomi of Japan competes against VU Thi Trang of Vietnam in the badminton Women's Single at the 2016 Rio Olympics (Photo by Amin M. Jamali/Getty Images)

"Life as an active athlete doesn’t last forever, so while I have thoughts and information I can share as an athlete, I believe I should not be afraid to post these."

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic that is requiring all of us to curtail our normal activities, there are many athletes who are continuing with their daily training routines ahead of the Olympic and Paralympic Games next year - many of whom share their thoughts via social media.

Among them is OKUHARA Nozomi, a badminton player who won Japan’s first women’s singles bronze medal at Rio 2016 before topping the podium at the World Badminton Championships in 2017. She is now aiming to win gold at Tokyo 2020.

Okuhara spoke to Tokyo 2020 about the ideas she wants to communicate through social media and her aspirations for the Olympic Games next year.

Directly delivering messages through social media

After returning to Japan from the All England Open Badminton Championships in mid-March, I had to self-isolate at home for two weeks. During that time, I started posting diary-like entries on social media every day to keep a record of my life at home and to put pressure on myself to make the best of my free time. I also thought that delivering messages in my own words was the least I could do for my fans, who have been very supportive and now have no matches to watch.

Given the widespread reach of social media, my hope was to help my fans during this difficult time by sharing my thoughts and updates directly through my social media account. I have been receiving lots of positive feedback such as, 'Your posts empower me', and 'I love this kind of message', which makes me feel that reaching out through social media is a really worthwhile activity.

Motivating children to head toward a brighter future

Education is an area of interest for me.

I believe that the environment in which children grow up and the education they receive can change their lives. In this modern age, people can obtain information about sports and athletes by looking online even though no sports competitions are currently taking place due to the pandemic.

Children can also learn from proactive athletes who post social media updates. As an active athlete competing against the world’s top players, I may also be able to motivate children in some way through social media. If so, I should make myself useful by sharing my knowledge and ideas. Life as an active athlete doesn’t last forever, so while I have thoughts and information I can share as an athlete, I believe I should not be afraid to post these.

Recently, I wrote a message on my blog to encourage junior and senior high school students who are forced to cope with difficult situations caused by the pandemic, including the cancellation of matches. I also posted the message on Instagram. I received numerous direct responses from students. Many expressed their aspiration to do their best in what they could today, which made me happy because this was exactly how I had hoped my message would reverberate among them.

It may be difficult to imagine how these students feel exactly, but I’d like to keep impressing upon them the fact that we do have a brighter future ahead. My hope is to give them a little push to pave their way towards a better future. Students engaged in sports, especially those in the third year of high school, may be in despair, deprived of their goals due to their sports events having been called off. We are living through an unprecedented situation, and I can imagine how difficult it must be for their teachers, coaches and parents to console and encourage them.

I would be more than happy if such students could find solace in the words of athletes including myself and gain the energy to move forward.

Students engaged in sports, especially those in the third year of high school, may be in despair, deprived of their goals due to their sports events having been called off.

Athletes’ role in promoting the beauty of sports

I recently launched a livestream talk show named Nozomi-no-Kakehashi ['bridge of hope'] out of my desire to hear what athletes of other sports had in mind. For my first show, I invited HONDA Keisuke, a footballer, and TOSAKA Eri, a wrestler to join me.

The Tokyo 2020 Games is a dream stage for badminton as well as all the other sports included in the Olympic Games programme, so I have a desire to connect with athletes of other sports and raise the excitement levels across the entire sporting world. I am also curious to know how other athletes see the challenge of not being able to practice due to the pandemic, which in my view is having a major impact on the sports world. By getting in touch with other athletes, I hope to exchange ideas about how we can build expectations and promote sports.

If we are to keep art and sports thriving, it is imperative for artists and athletes to show the world that art and sports are an indispensable part of society and entertainment.

In the post-corona world, we athletes must step out of our protected cocoons and demonstrate for ourselves how we can contribute to society and what roles we can play. The beauty of sport is that it can convey courage and moving experiences without using words or specific cultural references.

Athletes need years of intense training and overcome many struggles to get to the stage where they are able to shed light on the magic of sport, which is precisely why I want to pass down the beauty of sport to the next generation. To this end, the entire sports world needs to make concerted efforts to tackle this challenging situation now.

When I was injured, I sometimes found that negative thoughts were getting the better of me.

But I kept forcing myself to stay positive and move forward.

What my injury made me realise: It’s possible to turn setbacks into positive experiences if you try hard enough

Even under the current circumstances, it all boils down to being the best we can. It is as simple as that. There may be a limit, but we must find what we can do and put it into action. It was my injury that opened my eyes to this way of thinking.

I’m sure everybody is doing their best while trying to avoid setbacks or failures, but they are bound to face them at some point in life. For me, the setbacks were the injuries I suffered in my knees and right shoulder. I even had a number of surgeries on my knees. This experience got me thinking and broadened my horizons, shaping who I am today. Even when I’m faced with a failure or a hardship, I can somehow manage to get back on my feet, think and act for myself, and work hard to shine.

I believe that if I try hard enough I can turn setbacks into something positive. When I was injured, I sometimes found that negative thoughts were getting the better of me, but I kept forcing myself to stay positive and move forward. Every disappointment I had experienced was an essential building block for me to win an Olympic medal. My devoted efforts to do whatever I could resulted in my victory at the World Badminton Championships.

Bronze medallist Okuhara Nozomi of Japan celebrates during the medal ceremony after the Women's Singles Badminton competition at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)
Bronze medallist Okuhara Nozomi of Japan celebrates during the medal ceremony after the Women's Singles Badminton competition at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

The Olympic Games is a stage for testing who is worthy of gold

I had sadly expected the postponement of the Games by the time it was announced because all the other qualifying competitions were being called off, so I was able to accept the fact without being upset about it.

What I need to do and how I should tackle my challenges remain unchanged. I will simply do what I can now and give my best performance at the Tokyo 2020 Games to be held in 2021, hoping for victory. The Olympic Games is a stage for me to put myself to the test.

The word 'match' in Japanese is written with Chinese characters meaning 'to test each other', which I believe accurately conveys the essence of a 'match'.

An athlete cannot become an Olympic gold medallist unless he/she is genuine “gold medal material” in all aspects – from natural talent, tactical acumen and tenacity right down to luck. That’s why gold medals are so difficult to gain. I will put myself to the test and hopefully prove myself worthy of gold in 2021.

When I think about the miracle of having the Olympic Games hosted in my own country while I am an active athlete,

I feel even more motivated to seize the opportunity.

Hoping to win and sing Kimigayo with everyone

The Tokyo 2020 Games is merely a transit point in my life as an individual, but it is the biggest goal in my life as a badminton player.

When I think about the miracle of having the Olympic Games hosted in my own country while I am an active athlete, I feel even more motivated to seize the opportunity.

I was awarded the bronze medal at the Rio 2016 Games, which still brings back poignant memories of the disappointment I felt. But it is the top that I am aiming for in Tokyo. Athletes from a host country tend to feel both added pressure and empowerment, but I want to set high expectations for myself and convert everything into positive energy to achieve gold.

My dream is to sing with everyone "Kimigayo", the national anthem of Japan, played in celebration of my gold medal.