Pita Taufatofua

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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Prince Harry, Meghan Markle wear Tonga flag bearer’s Olympic outfit

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Viral Tonga Olympic flag bearer Pita Taufatofua was very much a part of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle‘s two-day visit to the Polynesian kingdom this week.

So much so that the Duke and Duchess of Sussex wore the traditional Tongan garb that Taufatofua made famous at the Rio Olympic Opening Ceremony.

“Harry and Meghan making my Olympic outfit look good!” was posted on Taufatofua’s social media.

Taufatofua was in the background of images of the royal couple inspecting the dress. Taufatofua said on social media that he met them.

The 34-year-old has said he plans a Tokyo 2020 Olympic run in a new sport aligned with water, but he has not revealed what the sport is. He also guaranteed that he will earn a medal in Tokyo should he qualify.

Taufatofua became a viral hit for his shirtless, oiled-up debut at the Rio Opening Ceremony, then lost in the first round via mercy rule in the taekwondo tournament.

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

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

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.

“When I went to Rio, I was told by some of our own people [dignitaries], don’t wear this, don’t wear that,” Taufatofua said. “We want you to wear a suit and a tie. I said no. I said, you were taught to wear that suit and that tie 50 years ago. I said, my ancestors go back 1,000 years. I want to wear what they wore because I’m representing them when I carry that flag. They said no, so we carried it in our bags and hid it under our uniforms when we walked in the backstages of Rio and pulled it out when they had no chance to kick us off the team. Then, afterwards, they [other people] said, whose idea was it? They [the Tongan officials] said it was ours. It was all of ours.”

The PyeongChang uniform was headed for the Olympic Museum in Lausanne. The Rio one was placed on his wall at home.

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Tonga flag bearer guarantees medal if he makes 2020 Olympics in new sport

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UNITED NATIONS — Pita Taufatofua is not ready to reveal which new sport he has taken up for a 2020 Olympic run — “very soon,” he said — but the oiled-up, shirtless Tongan flag bearer made it clear.

“I can guarantee you … whatever that next sport is, if I qualify for the Olympics in that sport, I will medal in that sport,” he said while visiting the UN last Wednesday for the Youth Dialogue event.

Taufatofua, who became a viral hit at the Rio Opening Ceremony and then competed in taekwondo and cross-country skiing in back-to-back Olympics, has known his new sport for at least two months. He traveled extensively since the Winter Games ended three months ago but found the time to tailor training for it.

“What I’m going to present is a sport that’s much more aligned with being a Tongan and being a Pacific Islander,” Taufatofua said two months ago. “It’s aligned with the water, the sea. So, wait and see.”

Yet Taufatofua refused to rule out competing in taekwondo again.

“Once taekwondo’s in the blood it never leaves,” he said Wednesday. “I’m always going to be a taekwondo fighter. Who knows? Who knows what the next step is.

“It’s always about stepping things up. How do you make it even better? Maybe I’ll do two sports. Who knows? … Whatever the most complex thing that I can think of is, that’ll be what’s next.”

Taufatofua also refused to rule out a team sport like water polo, despite Tonga having no Olympic history in the event and a minute chance to field a team to attempt to qualify for the Tokyo Games.

He also declined a suggestion that the new sport would be, like cross-country skiing, one with an easier route to qualify for the Olympics. Taufatofua finished 114th in his PyeongChang cross-country skiing race and lost by mercy rule in his Rio first-round taekwondo match.

“This is about the impossible,” Taufatofua said. “I’m not looking for an easy sport. I’m looking for a sport that’s aligned with me.”

Taufatofua confirmed he’s coming out with a book titled, “That Single Step,” based off the Lao Tzu quote, “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”

“It’s going to change people’s lives when it comes to creating new habits, getting to exercise, becoming a sportsman,” he said.

When will Taufatofua compete again? He said he doesn’t know. But he has put all of the weight back on that he shed for cross-country skiing.

And if he’s 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.

“When I went to Rio, I was told by some of our own people [dignitaries], don’t wear this, don’t wear that,” Taufatofua said. “We want you to wear a suit and a tie. I said no. I said, you were taught to wear that suit and that tie 50 years ago. I said, my ancestors go back 1,000 years. I want to wear what they wore because I’m representing them when I carry that flag. They said no, so we carried it in our bags and hid it under our uniforms when we walked in the backstages of Rio and pulled it out when they had no chance to kick us off the team. Then, afterwards, they [other people] said, whose idea was it? They [the Tongan officials] said it was ours. It was all of ours.”

The PyeongChang uniform is headed for the Olympic Museum in Lausanne. The Rio one is stuck on his wall at home, hung with extra significance.

“It’s where things changed for me,” he said.

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