SAITO Rika: Having a goal can be very powerful

Rika Saito of Japan reacts after her attempt in the women's 69kg weightlifting event at the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games (Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images)
Rika Saito of Japan reacts after her attempt in the women's 69kg weightlifting event at the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games (Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images)

On 24 July, some of the world’s best athletes will share their most unforgettable Olympic and Paralympic Games moments during a week-long online summer festival.

The Festival of Olympian and Paralympian Online Experiences, hosted by Airbnb, will allow fans all over the world to take part in over 100 interactive activities hosted by a stellar line-up of athletes including OSAKA Namoi, Yusra Mardini, HACHIMURA Rui, Allyson Felix, and Lex Gillette.

Olympian SAITO Rika of Japan is also taking part. She spoke to Tokyo 2020 about her Olympic debut and how she has offered inspiration during the lockdown.

Saito began weightlifting in senior high school and competed in the women’s 69kg category. She is a national championship winner and represented Japan at Beijing 2008.

Following her retirement in 2012, Saito worked as a training consultant and last year embarked on a master's degree in sports sociology at Waseda University. She is currently a member of the Japan Anti-Doping Agency and is part of the Tokyo 2020 Athletes Committee.

Tokyo, JAPAN - 8 FEBRUARY 2019: Athletes' Commission and D&I, Diversity and Inclusion, Pledge
Tokyo, JAPAN - 8 FEBRUARY 2019: Athletes' Commission and D&I, Diversity and Inclusion, Pledge
(c) Tokyo 2020

Why did you want to get involved with the Airbnb Online Experience?

I was working as a training consultant before, so it was natural for me to offer my experiences through this festival.

It was difficult at the beginning. I am familiar with giving training advice face-to-face, and there are many things difficult to explain online!

However, there are many advantages to being online. One can participate [in the Airbnb experience] wherever he/she is. The activity is not restricted by physical locations. As long as you have a small space at home, you can connect with those who you could not in the past.

How do you feel about hosting the activities?

Not long before I started hosting activities on Airbnb, Japan announced a state of emergency. I spent most time at home and only went outside when it was really necessary. During that period, I had much less chance to talk and communicate with others.

Because I rarely share my experience with those who I meet for the first time, I was really excited about who I would meet during the festival. It's a lot of fun to meet people online.

What are you offering from your experience?

During the experience, I’ll ask you what kind of daily exercise you were doing and I’ll make a training plan according to your physical condition. Then we will train together.

Some of the participants in the past have said it was really interesting. Others said they had a better understanding about the condition of their body. I was really happy to hear this feedback!

What made you want to compete at the Olympic Games?

I was in high school when the Sydney 2000 was held and women's weightlifting was included as an Olympic sport for the first time.

I participated in the National Weightlifting Championship, which was a qualifying event, and I saw how hard senior athletes fought for their dreams. They were very cool in my eye! So I thought it would be great if I could compete as an athlete and represent Japan one day.

At the same time, I started to participate in a few junior international events and I wore clothing with the logo of Japan’s flag. From that moment, I started to believe that I could go to an Olympic Games if I tried harder.

What did you find most surprising when you went to Beijing for the Olympic Games in 2008?

Because weightlifting is not such a popular sport in Japan, the venues were rarely full when we had matches at home.

However, when it came to the Olympic Games many people came to watch – so many in fact that my parents only managed to get tickets [to watch me compete] at the last minute. It was touching to see such a large crowd cheering for us. I felt so empowered.

At the Olympic Village I met athletes from other nations who were competing in other sports. There I also felt the unity [as being part of] Team Japan. I believe these experiences are unique to the Olympic Games.

What did you learn as an Olympian?

Have a goal and work hard towards it.

This is still applicable to my daily life, either when I was working (as a training consultant) or now working towards a master’s degree. Take my thesis for example; from my experience as an athlete, I learned that I need to work towards my goal step-by-step.

The way of reaching milestones towards the final goal is still very helpful.

BEIJING - AUGUST 13:  Rika Saito of Japan competes during the women's 69kg weightlifting competition at the University of Aeronautics and Astronautics Gymnasium during Day 5 of the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games on August 13, 2008 in Beijing, China.  (Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images)
BEIJING - AUGUST 13: Rika Saito of Japan competes during the women's 69kg weightlifting competition at the University of Aeronautics and Astronautics Gymnasium during Day 5 of the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games on August 13, 2008 in Beijing, China. (Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images)
2008 Getty Images

The Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games and Paralympic Games were postponed because of the COVID-19 pandemic. What do you think sport can do in the face of such challenging times?

That’s a question I’ve been thinking about a lot recently. I think it is our [athletes] strong point to be creative in difficult conditions; those who can be creative can be more successful at competitions. Trying to make the best out of a situation that is beyond our control? This is something that athletes are doing all the time.

Instead of sighing about the current situation, we need to think about what we can do in it. In this aspect, I think athletes are role models and they can introduce these perspectives to the public.

As a member of the Tokyo 2020 Athletes Committee, what kind of reactions from athletes did you notice when Tokyo 2020 was postponed?

Some of them were concerned about the uncertainty of Tokyo 2020 and the global situation in general. Although they understood that postponement was the right thing to do, it still took time to sort out their feelings.

I could understand their concerns. They have been so close to achieving their goals, but suddenly everything changed. I used to ask myself whether I could handle it if I were in similar situation.

However, with the belief that Tokyo 2020 will be held next year, athletes started training again, which is encouraging. Although there are still many uncertainties, I hope I see their efforts pay off next year.

Do you have a message to any athlete currently preparing for Tokyo 2020?

Having a goal can be very powerful. Keep putting 100 per cent effort in what you can do at the moment and work towards the goal that you have determined. There are so many people who are cheering for you.

I am looking forward to seeing Olympians and Paralympians shining on the Tokyo 2020 stage next year.

Connect with the world’s best athletes like never before. Sign up at Airbnb.com/festival to interact directly with your favourite athletes during the five-day festival of Olympian and Paralympian Online Experiences.

You can also watch the following experiences on the Olympic YouTube Channel:

24 July: Opening Act with Colin Jackson, Pita Taufatofua and Tanni Grey-Thompson. 7 p.m. UTC/9 p.m. Madrid/noon LA
25 July: Overcoming hardship with Yusra Mardini. 5 p.m. UTC/7 p.m. Madrid/10 a.m. LA
Life lessons with Olympic gold medallist Allyson Felix. 11 p.m. UTC/1 a.m. 26 July Madrid/4 p.m. LA
Story time with Mary Wineberg. 1 a.m. UTC 26 July/3 a.m. 26 July Madrid/6 p.m. LA
26 July: Become resourceful with Pita Taufatofua. 9 a.m. UTC/11 a.m. Madrid/2 a.m. LA
Cycle the virtual globe with Jonny Brownlee. 3 p.m. UTC/5 p.m. Madrid/8 a.m. LA
27 July: Join a dinner party with Colin Jackson. 11 a.m. UTC/1 p.m. Madrid/4 a.m. LA
29 July: Up your sneaker game with Rui Hachimura. 12:01 a.m. UTC 30 July/2 a.m. 30 July Madrid/5 p.m. LA
Train with Naomi Osaka. 1 a.m. July 29 Madrid time