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Tonga flag bearer from Rio qualifies for Winter Olympics

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Pita Taufatofua, the shirtless, oiled-up Tongan flag bearer from the Rio Games, qualified for the PyeongChang Olympics in cross-country skiing on Saturday.

“This was my last race possible, and we did it,” Taufatofua said in an interview with Olympic Channel, which also reported that he qualified. “This is a miracle.”

Taufatofua qualified at the final weekend of the Olympic qualifying period in Iceland, which is more than 9,000 miles from his home archipelago.

The last two events before qualification ends were Saturday’s freestyle race and a classic race scheduled for Sunday.

Taufatofua completed a journey this season that included races in Colombia, Turkey, Poland and Armenia.

Taufatofua said he had seven chances to qualify for PyeongChang before Saturday and failed in all of them, finishing last each time (The official results show Taufatofua beating skiers from Malaysia and Mexico in some of these races.).

Taufatofua scrambled to make it to Iceland from Croatia this week. He said his group drove three days through a blizzard, an avalanche closing off the road at one point.

“People don’t see the hard work that goes behind,” he said. “They just see the shiny guy that walks with the flag.”

Taufatofua lost his opening Olympic taekwondo match by mercy rule in Rio, two weeks after his viral appearance in the Opening Ceremony.

He announced in December 2016 that he was switching to cross-country skiing in a bid for PyeongChang.

Cross-country, while a physically taxing pursuit, is one of the easier Winter Olympic sports to gain qualification for athletes from nations without much Winter Games history.

“I decided to find the hardest sport possible because I needed a new challenge,” Taufatofua said. “The goal was to do it one year, and we did it.”

Taufatofua debuted at the 2017 World Championships and was 153rd of 156 finishers in the 1.6km sprint freestyle.

It took Taufatofua 5 minutes, 44.72 seconds to complete the course in Lahti, Finland, which was about 10,000 miles from Tonga. The top qualifier clocked 3:11.72.

How will he dress at the PyeongChang Opening Ceremony, where outdoor temperatures are likely to be below freezing?

“One step at a time,” Taufatofua said. “Right now, I just want to go and party. I destroyed myself just to get here.”

In 2014, Bruno Banani became the first Tongan to compete at a Winter Olympics, placing 32nd in men’s luge. He was later the subject of a documentary.

Banani gained fame starting in early 2012, when the story of his name was widely publicized. Banani’s real name is Fuahea Semi, but he changed it to the name of his German clothing sponsor as a marketing ploy.

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VIDEO: Shaun White scores perfect 100 to qualify for Olympics

I raced through 5 countries in the last 24hrs to try and get to my race in Croatia. I sat in a taxi for 6 hrs driving through Armenia into Georgia in the middle of the night. I sat on the front seat of the @turkishairlines plane, sprinted through the airport and snuck through the business class fast transit lane and somehow managed to arrive at the gate 15 min before departure for my flight to Croatia. Once there I found that @turkishairlines had shut the gate early even after their delayed initial flight from Georgia, leaving me stranded. After remembering a scene from a James Bond movie, I pressed all the buttons on the aerobridge door to see if I could somehow open it and sprint down to the connecting flight, unfortunately that didn’t work, and luckily I didn’t get arrested. So here I am sitting at Istanbul airport missing the race that could have possibly gotten me to the Olympics. It was always going to be a long shot but I had to give it a shot and I did. Soo many times in life we will get disappointed. When this happens I have two options. I can sit on that chair crying about what could have been and how unfair life is…. or I can go and find some good quality chocolate, pull out my notepad and start planning “what’s next”— I always did like chocolate…

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World Taekwondo Federation drops acronym due to ‘negative connotations’

World Taekwondo
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The World Taekwondo Federation dropped its “WTF” acronym due to “negative connotations” and changed its logo and its name to World Taekwondo.

“In the digital age, the acronym of our federation has developed negative connotations unrelated to our organization,” World Taekwondo President Chungwon Choue said in a press release. “It was important that we rebranded to better engage with our fans. World Taekwondo is distinctive and simple to understand.”

The move was almost two years in the making.

In December 2015, World Taekwondo said it planned to lessen the use of the WTF acronym for marketing purposes, according to Inside the Games, but at the time did not plan to fully change the name.

MORE: Olympic taekwondo star accused of sexual abuse

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Olympic taekwondo star accused of sexual abuse, report says

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Two brothers under investigation for sexual misconduct were allowed to take part in the Rio Olympics last summer, according to a report.

USA Today reported that USA Taekwondo began investigating claims against Steven and Jean Lopez more than two years ago after multiple women said the brothers sexually assaulted them.

The organizing body consulted with the U.S. Olympic Committee and agreed to halt the probe before the Olympics, according to USA Today. That meant Steven Lopez – a 38-year-old, three-time Olympic medalist – and Jean, at 43 a veteran coach, could participate.

The newspaper obtained a March 22 letter from investigating attorney Donald Alperstein to one of the women in which he said he notified the FBI “because so much of the misconduct occurred in multiple jurisdictions” and added that he “felt the Lopez brothers needed to be removed from the sport.”

Both brothers denied sexual assault allegations made by four women to the newspaper and to investigators.

“I’ve never been inappropriate with anyone,” Jean Lopez said.

Mandy Meloon, a former taekwondo participant who says Jean Lopez molested her in 1997 when she was 16, said an FBI agent interviewed her for roughly two hours on May 19. She said she provided names of other women who say they were abused by the Lopez brothers and others in the sport.

Heidi Gilbert, another former athlete, told the newspaper that Jean Lopez drugged and sexually assaulted her. She said she did not contact law enforcement officials because “they’re not going to believe me, nothing is going to happen.” She said she did detail the allegations to investigators for USA Taekwondo and the U.S. Center for SafeSport.

Another woman, identified only as a former member of the junior national team, said she was drugged three times and that Steven Lopez once had sex with her while she was unconscious. She also notified USA Taekwondo and SafeSport but not law enforcement.

The Associated Press doesn’t typically name victims of sex abuse, but Meloon and Gilbert made their accusations publicly.

USOC spokesman Patrick Sandusky said in a statement provided to the newspaper that “preventing and responding to sexual abuse is something we take incredibly seriously” and is why it founded SafeSport, which operates independently from the USOC. The organizing body declined to specifically address questions about the Lopez brothers and the investigation.

“When the center opened in March, we appropriately submitted the taekwondo matter for its review, and to comment publicly in the midst of the center’s investigation would be inappropriate,” Sandusky said.