In the four-plus years since Rio 2016, when Nozomi Okuhara won the bronze medal, the Japanese has evolved into one of the most consistent performers on the circuit. Accolades collected on the way include a World Championships crown and a second All England title.
The run-up to Tokyo 2020 couldn’t be more different from the months leading to Rio 2016. For one, the staging of the Olympics on home turf makes it that much more significant for Okuhara, who is seen as a leading medal contender.
However, as with many other players, the early months of the pandemic were a difficult period.
“It was very difficult to think about things and make judgments,” recalls Okuhara, “and I had never encountered anything like this before, so I was anxious about many things and had a lot of unknowns, and rather than scheduling badminton, I was anxious about how I was going to live my life. From that point on, many of the tournaments and races were postponed, and I was thinking about until when they would be postponed, and how I should plan for a life where I couldn’t see the future, and I was very confused at the beginning.
“I was not sure which way it would turn out to be, but I was thinking positively that I would do my work every day so that I could have a fulfilling and meaningful time this year.”
The difference from Rio was that Okuhara believes she had evolved as a player, to the extent that a match isn’t a “50-50” proposition anymore.
“At that time, I wasn’t sure if I could be one of the top players in the world, and I wasn’t sure of myself. I felt like it was a 50-50 match every time, but now I have confidence in myself to be one of the top players in the world. In order to make up for the frustration I felt in Rio, I’ve spent the last four years focusing on the game and what I can do to improve my chances of winning. So, rather than just coming back from injury, I’ve been thinking about how to prepare for the next matches based on my experience in Rio. I think that’s what made all the difference from the very beginning.
“Unlike the last Olympic Games in Rio, in order to win a medal in Tokyo, I had to think about how to get seeded rather than how to qualify for the Olympics, and how to improve my performance against the world’s top players. I had been thinking about it with my coach and the staff members around me. I think I have had more time to think about this than I did in Rio, and I have been focusing more on my play and the tournaments rather than on qualifying for the Olympics.”
One of her most significant experiences happened in the TOTAL BWF World Championships 2019 final, when she was decimated 21-7 21-7 by Pusarla V Sindhu. Okuhara believes that result changed the way she approached the game.
“At that time, rather than feeling depressed, I wondered why things had turned out the way they did, and my mind went into a bit of panic. From that point on, I had to re-think my feelings and my style of play from the very beginning. I had been losing in the finals continuously, but I was also ranked No. 1 in the world. In response to this, people around me and journalists asked me why I lost again. However, staff members close to me saw my results in a positive light, saying that my average had improved, and that helped me a lot. I think it was the second half of 2019 that gave me the opportunity to overcome the challenge of winning my final.”
Having lost six finals in 2019, Okuhara was finally able to turn things around at the DANISA Denmark Open in October 2020 when she beat Carolina Marin for the title. This year, she won the only tournament she played – the YONEX All England – which has put her in a positive frame of mind going into the Olympics.
But Okuhara also recognises that the Olympics is more than just about performing well; she believes it is also a platform to bring the world together.
“With the Olympics, the focus on sports is being considered and discussed more and more all over the world, and I think it has given us a chance to think about the value of sports and what sports is all about. In the past, I was thinking that Olympics is all about getting results and winning medals, and that was all. However, this year’s Olympics will be held in the midst of such global issues, so I believe that it will be a tournament that will provide an opportunity to think and feel more about the true value of sports, not just the results, but the process, the play, and the victory of sports itself. Therefore, through badminton, I would like have everyone gathered feeling happy or sad (about the games), and convey the strength of the sport, and of course the fun of badminton. I will probably see everyone through the screens, though I would be very happy if we could share that moment when the world comes together, when we can forget about reality, by getting rid of cultural differences and other things, because the original Olympics is about a celebration of peace. So if the Olympic are held successfully, I would be very happy if we could share that moment where we can forget about what’s happening out in the world.”