Tonga flag bearer Pita Taufatofua
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Tonga flag bearer eyes history with two sports at Tokyo Olympics

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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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Maria Sharapova appears set to miss Tokyo Olympics

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Maria Sharapova, who would have a difficult time qualifying for the Olympics next year, committed to play an event in California the week of the Tokyo Games.

Sharapova is scheduled to play World Team Tennis matches in California during the Olympic tennis events in late July, according to a press release. Sharapova’s longtime agent hasn’t responded to a message seeking confirmation that she is ruling out the Tokyo Games.

Sharapova, 32 and the 2012 Olympic silver medalist, was barred from the Rio Games due to her 15-month meldonium suspension in 2016 and 2017. That alone could rule her ineligible for Tokyo, given the World Anti-Doping Agency’s sanctions against Russia on Monday.

Sharapova is ranked No. 131 after a season shortened by shoulder surgery. She would have to be among the top four ranked Russian women after the French Open in June for possible automatic Olympic qualification. She is currently the 14th Russian.

Olympic eligibility rules include minimum participation requirements in Fed Cup, which Sharapova hasn’t done in this Olympic cycle, though exceptions can be made.

Sharapova’s passion for the Olympics is well documented.

She carried the Russian flag into the London 2012 Opening Ceremony and carried the Olympic flame into Fisht Stadium at the Sochi 2014 Opening Ceremony, where she worked for NBC Olympics.

“It was the one thing that my parents allowed me to watch on TV late into the evening was the Olympics,” Sharapova said in 2017. “I grew up watching figure skating and hockey and a little bit of tennis. … Just capturing the Opening Ceremonies and seeing all the countries and the little hats that they wore, and I, as a little girl, I just imagined that maybe it would be me. But I never, ever thought that I would be carrying the flag.

“I received that [flag] honor in a text message, which is a very Russian way of communicating. I originally thought it was a joke, a big fat joke. Then I showed it to my mother, and she [said], no, they probably wouldn’t joke like that.”

In February 2016, Sharapova entered a Fed Cup tie, despite saying she was injured, in order to receive Olympic eligibility. One month later, her failed drug test was announced.

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Russia banned from Olympics, world champs for 4 years; athletes could compete as neutrals

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Russia is banned from the next two Olympics and other major sports events for four years, though its athletes could still compete without representing the country if cleared by anti-doping authorities.

Russia’s hosting of world championships in Olympic sports also face being stripped after the World Anti-Doping Agency executive committee approved a full slate of recommended sanctions for tampering with a Moscow laboratory database.

Russian athletes will be allowed to compete in major events — including world championships — only if they are not implicated in positive doping tests or their data was not manipulated, according to the WADA ruling. “In this circumstance, they may not represent the Russian Federation,” according to a WADA release.

“While I understand the calls for a blanket ban on all Russian athletes whether or not they are implicated by the data, it was the unanimous view of the CRC [compliance review committee], which includes an athlete, that in this case, those who could prove their innocence should not be punished, and I am pleased that the WADA ExCo [executive committee] agreed with this,” WADA CRC chairman Jonathan Taylor said.

There are 145 unnamed athletes within WADA’s “target group of most suspicious athletes” from 2012-15 who would not be allowed to compete at the Olympics, Taylor said, adding that it’s possible those names will be made public. About one-third of them are still active.

Russia’s anti-doping agency can appeal the decision within 21 days. Russia previously signaled it would appeal the ruling.

“The decision will come into effect only when it becomes final ie when either RUSADA accepts it or it is upheld by the Court of Arbitration for Sport,” a WADA spokesperson said in an email.

Russia avoided blanket bans for the Rio and PyeongChang Olympics after a state-run doping program was exposed by media and WADA investigations after Russia hosted the 2014 Sochi Winter Games.

Approved Russian athletes competed as neutrals — “Olympic Athletes from Russia” — including in team sports in PyeongChang. Those Russians combined to earn two gold medals (figure skater Alina Zagitova and men’s hockey) and 17 overall, compared to the leading 33 Russia earned at the Sochi Olympics before medals were stripped for doping.

“Will Russian athletes be accepted as Olympic Athletes from Russia?” during the ban, Taylor said. “No, they are neutral athletes, which means not representatives of any country. Not representatives of Russia.”

Going forward, “they cannot use the name of the country in the name of the team,” WADA president-elect Witold Bańka told The Associated Press.

Two of the 168 Russians who competed in PyeongChang failed drug tests and were punished for doping.

More recent evidence shows that Russian authorities tampered with a Moscow laboratory database to hide hundreds of potential doping cases and falsely shift the blame onto whistleblowers, WADA investigators and the International Olympic Committee said last month. “Flagrant manipulation” of the Moscow lab data was “an insult to the sporting movement worldwide,” the IOC said last month.

“Russia was afforded every opportunity to get its house in order … but it chose instead to continue in its stance of deception and denial,” WADA president Craig Reedie said.

Russia will be allowed to participate in the Youth Olympics in Lausanne, Switzerland, that open Jan. 9.

WADA’s inability to fully expel Russia from the Tokyo Olympics and 2022 Beijing Winter Games frustrated the doping watchdog’s vice president.

“I’m not happy with the decision we made today. But this is as far as we could go,” said Linda Helleland, a Norwegian lawmaker who serves on WADA executive committee and has long pushed for a tougher line against Russia. “This is the biggest sports scandal the world has ever seen. I would expect now a full admission from the Russians and for them to apologize on all the pain all the athletes and sports fans have experienced.”

Although the IOC has called for the strongest possible sanctions, it wants those sanctions directed at Russian state authorities rather than athletes or Olympic officials.

“To allow Russia to escape a complete ban is yet another devastating blow to clean athletes, the integrity of sport and the rule of law,” USADA CEO Travis Tygart said in a statement. “And, in turn, the reaction by all those who value sport should be nothing short of a revolt against this broken system to force reform.”

Russia’s Olympic champion women’s handball team is currently competing at the world championships in Japan. Its next match is Tuesday against Montenegro. Russia has been the scheduled host for the world luge championships in Sochi in mid-February.

The “major sports” events that fall under WADA’s sanctions do not include European Championships or other non-world championships events such as tennis’ upcoming Australian Open.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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