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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Caster Semenya allowed to race 800m at Pre Classic

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Caster Semenya has been switched from the 3000m to the 800m at next week’s Pre Classic, marking her first scheduled 800m since a Swiss Supreme Court ruling allowed her to race her Olympic gold-medal distance while she appeals a new IAAF testosterone rule.

“Caster’s representation requested that she be moved from the 3,000 meters (where she was originally entered) to the 800 meters, and we are happy to comply,” Prefontaine Classic meet director Tom Jordan said in a statement, confirming a Reuters report.

NBC Sports airs live Pre Classic coverage on June 30 from 4-6 p.m. ET.

Semenya, the two-time Olympic 800m champion, was originally entered in the 3000m because the rule bars her from races between 400m and the mile unless she takes testosterone-suppressing measures, under which she would be allowed to return to those distances late this year. Semenya refuses to take those measures.

A Swiss Supreme Court ruling two weeks ago lifted the restriction for Semenya — but not other athletes — while her appeal is pending. The IAAF has until Monday to respond to the court before a ruling could be made. A resolution could still be months away, with Semenya possibly able to race until that day comes.

Semenya has won 30 straight 800m races dating to 2015, including the Rio Olympics and 2017 World Championships. All three Rio Olympic 800m medalists have said they are affected by the new rule capping testosterone in women’s races between the 400m and mile.

That meant none raced at Diamond League stops in Stockholm and Rabat, Morocco, earlier this month. Last Sunday’s Rabat meet offered Semenya a late invite, more than a week after her restriction was lifted, but Semenya said it was too late for her to travel in time to race.

American record holder Ajeé Wilson won the Stockholm 800m without any of the Olympic medalists in the field.

MORE: Caster Semenya to IAAF: Focus on dopers, not us

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Geraint Thomas crashes out of Tour de France prep race

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BASEL, Switzerland (AP) — Tour de France champion Geraint Thomas crashed in a cycling race, days after teammate Chris Froome was involved in a season-ending accident in France.

Team INEOS said Thomas should be fine to start the Tour de France on July 6 despite having to drop out of the fourth stage of the nine-day Tour de Suisse race in Switzerland.

“Clearly it’s frustrating and a small setback for my Tour de France preparations, but there’s still plenty of time before we start in Brussels in a few weeks’ time,” Thomas said, according to the team.

The team says on Twitter that Thomas “was alert and speaking to the team after the crash and will be taken to hospital for checks.”

Thomas had a ripped jersey and cuts on his back and shoulder after hitting the road with about 18 miles left in the stage. He was in eighth place, 28 seconds behind race leader Peter Sagan.

Thomas won the 2018 Tour after Froome won four times between 2013 and 2017.

Watch world-class cycling events throughout the year with the NBC Sports Gold Cycling Pass, including all 21 stages of the Tour de France live & commercial-free, plus access to renowned races like La Vuelta, Paris-Roubaix, the UCI World Championships and many more.

MORE: NBC Sports launches Cycling Pass for 2019-20 season

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