Tonga flag bearer eyes history with two sports at Tokyo Olympics

Tonga flag bearer Pita Taufatofua
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Pita Taufatofua, the viral Tongan flag bearer from the last two Olympics, wants to compete at the Tokyo 2020 Games in two sports — his trademark taekwondo and an individual sprint kayak event.

Two problems: He hasn’t competed in taekwondo in two and a half years. He just started training in a kayak last month and keeps capsizing.

Qualifying to return to the Olympics looks unlikely.

“Largely impossible,” he said. “It’s certainly going to be the greatest challenge that I’ve ever had to embark on.”

Taufatofua, 35, became a social-media celebrity by marching into the Rio Olympic Opening Ceremony shirtless and oiled up. He then lost in the first round via mercy rule in his taekwondo tournament.

He made a quixotic bid for the PyeongChang Winter Games in cross-country skiing — and accomplished the feat, barely, in a sport that has lenient qualifying requirements for nations with a lack of Winter Games depth.

Taufatofua finished 114th out of 116 in his 15km Olympic cross-country skiing race, nearly 23 minutes behind the winner.

He soon announced a 2020 Olympic bid in a new sport that involved water but did not disclose his choice until Monday.

“It’s something that’s much more aligned with my heritage,” said Taufatofua, who is also releasing his book, “The Motivation Station,” a life story with lessons, this week. “As a Polynesian, we traveled across the seas for a thousand years. The only way we knew how to get there was canoes, kayaks, outrigger canoes at the time. I wanted to do a sport that paid homage to my heritage and to my ancestors. But I also wanted to bring awareness to some of the problems that the world is facing. Climate change, pollution in the ocean.”

Taufatofua might have better luck reaching Tokyo in taekwondo, though he said he hasn’t competed in that sport since Rio.

The initial focus is on kayak’s two-pronged qualifying, beginning with the world championships in Hungary in August. Tonga must have an entrant at worlds to be eligible for the Olympics, an International Canoe Federation official said.

First, Taufatofua must learn to stay afloat for a 200m race that takes the world’s best 36 seconds to complete.

“At the moment the thing keeps tipping over,” he said. “I’ve got all the strength and conditioning training ready to propel me forward, but I can’t manage to stay on at the moment.”

He has time. Taufatofua’s result would only matter at an Oceania qualifying event early next year, where one Olympic bid is available. He will likely have to beat the best kayaker from Australia and New Zealand to grab it. Australian Stephen Bird placed eighth at the Rio Olympics and 11th at the 2018 World Championships. Bird did not respond to a message seeking comment on his new competition.

If Taufatofua fails, he could receive a special tripartite invitation sometimes offered to smaller nations like Tonga. But he is, for the moment, adamant on qualifying outright.

“Learning the techniques of the sport is going to take some time and hard work,” said NBC Olympic analyst Eric Giddens, a 1996 Olympian in kayak’s slalom event. “That’s not to say he can’t do it. The system in place, there’s a path. It’s not impossible.”

Taufatofua said he grew up fishing on a recreational kayak. He began kayak training in March, splitting his time between Tonga and Australia. His coach is his taekwondo coach, though he said the retired three-time Olympic medalist Katrin Borchert has helped with technical advice.

If Taufatofua is able to carry the Tongan flag at a third Opening Ceremony, he will definitely be shirtless again, in a similar outfit to what he wore in Rio and PyeongChang, he said last year.

He could be the first athlete to compete in a different sport in three straight Olympics (Summer and Winter) since the Winter Games began in 1924, according to the OlyMADMen.

Taufatofua would also be the first athlete in multiple sports at one Summer Games since 1992, when a pair competed in modern pentathlon and fencing (though fencing is also one of the five disciplines in modern pentathlon).

Furthermore, he would be the first to compete in two distinctly different sports at one Summer Games since Aristidis Roubanis threw the javelin and played for the Greek basketball team in Helsinki in 1952.

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