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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Diana Taurasi returns to U.S. national basketball team

Diana Taurasi
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Diana Taurasi is set to return to the U.S. national basketball team next week for the first time since the Tokyo Olympics, signaling a possible bid for a record-breaking sixth Olympic appearance in 2024 at age 42.

Taurasi is on the 15-player roster for next week’s training camp in Minnesota announced Tuesday.

Brittney Griner is not on the list but is expected to return to competitive basketball later this year with her WNBA team, the Phoenix Mercury (also Taurasi’s longtime team, though she is currently a free agent), after being detained in Russia for 10 months in 2022.

Taurasi said as far back as the 2016 Rio Games that her Olympic career was likely over, but returned to the national team after Dawn Staley succeeded Geno Auriemma as head coach in 2017.

In Tokyo, Taurasi and longtime backcourt partner Sue Bird became the first basketball players to win five Olympic gold medals. Bird has since retired.

After beating Japan in the final, Taurasi said “see you in Paris,” smiling, as she left an NBC interview. That’s now looking less like a joke and more like a prediction.

Minnesota Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve succeeded Staley as head coach last year. In early fall, she guided the U.S. to arguably the best FIBA World Cup performance ever, despite not having stalwarts Bird, Griner, Tina Charles and Sylvia Fowles.

Taurasi was not in contention for the team after suffering a WNBA season-ending quad injury in the summer. Taurasi, who is 38-0 in Olympic games and started every game at the last four Olympics, wasn’t on a U.S. team for an Olympics or worlds for the first time since 2002.

Next year, Taurasi can become the oldest Olympic basketball player in history and the first to play in six Games, according to Olympedia.org. Spain’s Rudy Fernandez could also play in a sixth Olympics in 2024.

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Mo Farah likely to retire this year

Mo Farah
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British track legend Mo Farah will likely retire by the end of this year.

“I’m not going to go to the Olympics, and I think 2023 will probably be my last year,” the 39-year-old Farah said, according to multiple British media reports.

Farah, who swept the 5000m and 10,000m golds at the Olympics in 2012 and 2016, was announced Tuesday as part of the field for the London Marathon on April 23.

Last May, Farah reportedly said he believed his career on the track was over, but not the roads.

London might not be his last marathon. Farah also said that if, toward the end of this year, he was capable of being picked to run for Britain again, he would “never turn that down,” according to Tuesday’s reports.

It’s not clear if Farah was referencing the world track and field championships, which include a marathon and are in Budapest in August. Or selection for the 2024 British Olympic marathon team.

The fastest British male marathoner last year ran 2:10:46, ranking outside the top 300 in the world. Farah broke 2:10 in all five marathons that he’s finished, but he hasn’t run one since October 2019 (aside from pacing the 2020 London Marathon).

Farah withdrew four days before the last London Marathon on Oct. 2, citing a right hip injury.

Farah switched from the track to the marathon after the 2017 World Championships and won the 2018 Chicago Marathon in a then-European record time of 2:05:11. Belgium’s Bashir Abdi now holds the record at 2:03:36.

Farah’s best London Marathon finish in four starts was third place in 2018.

Farah returned to the track in a failed bid to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics, then shifted back to the roads.

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