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Pita Taufatofua, Tonga flag bearer, qualifies for Tokyo Olympics

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Pita Taufatofua, the Tongan flag bearer who went viral for his shirtless, oiled-up Opening Ceremony entrances in Rio and PyeongChang, said he has qualified for a third straight Olympics.

Taufatofua won an Oceania continental Olympic taekwondo qualifier. He benefited from there being just one other entrant in his weight division for the one available Olympic spot.

“We’re going to Tokyo,” Taufatofua said in a text message, confirming the final score was 20-4 against Papua New Guinea’s Steven Tommy. World Taekwondo Oceania confirmed Taufatofua won. A document from a martial arts results website also listed Taufatofua having won.

Taufatofua clinched a quota spot not for himself, but for Tonga in Tokyo. Taufatofua, competing a month after fracturing a rib, said before the qualifier that he would receive Tonga’s Olympic spot if he won. A Tonga Olympic official responded late Friday to a question asking if Taufatofua gets the quota spot by saying in an email, “Now we have two, one [female qualifier] and Pita.”

The largest Oceania nations, Australia and New Zealand, chose to enter taekwondo fighters in divisions other than Taufatofua’s 80kg+. A nation could enter a maximum of two fighters per gender in the tournament, which had four divisions per gender total.

Taufatofua can still reach his goal of also qualifying for Tokyo in sprint kayak, too. His best opportunity may be via tripartite commission invitation, which goes to small nations.

In his two previous Olympics, Taufatofua lost in the Rio Olympic taekwondo tournament in the first round by mercy rule. In PyeongChang, he finished 114th out of 116 in a 15km cross-country skiing race, nearly 23 minutes behind the winner.

If he also makes it in kayak, Taufatofua will 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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Pita Taufatofua, Tonga flag bearer, enters Olympic qualifier with new challenge

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Pita Taufatofua‘s body made him famous at the last two Olympics. Now, it may keep him from performing at his best with an Olympic spot at stake.

Taufatofua, the Tongan flag bearer who became a sensation in Rio and PyeongChang, is entered in the Oceania Olympic kayak qualifying competition in Australia this weekend. One Olympic spot is available per event at the continental qualifier.

Taufatofua, already an underdog given he has been training in a kayak for less than a year, fractured a rib and possibly tore attaching muscle in training two weeks ago. Taufatofua said on Tuesday that he could not walk straight without pain and that he had not paddled since the injury.

“Other than that, everything else was going really well,” he said. “[I was in] the best condition of my life.”

Taufatofua, who announced in April that he wanted to qualify for the Tokyo Games in kayak and his 2016 Olympic sport of taekwondo, said the rib fracture is an eight-to-12-week injury. Oceania’s Olympic taekwondo qualifier is in two weeks.

“Obviously the rib injury affects taekwondo just as much as kayaking,” said Taufatofua, adding that his training in recent months was 80 percent kayak and 20 percent taekwondo. “I’m not going to pull out of anything just because the pain.”

If Taufatofua does not win either Olympic qualifier, he can still get to the Tokyo Games. Tonga’s Olympic Committee confirmed that it applied for a tripartite invitational spot in kayak (and weightlifting).

The International Olympic Committee has tripartite spots (104 total across 16 individual sports) in part to ensure universal representation at the Games. Nations that averaged eight or fewer total athletes between the last two Summer Games are eligible. Tonga averaged five athletes between London and Rio.

In canoe/kayak, two total tripartite spots will be awarded between the men’s and women’s sprint and slalom events. A final decision will be made around April, according to the International Canoe Federation.

While Taufatofua would be thankful if offered a tripartite spot, he would rather qualify outright for a third straight Olympics. He hopes his body will be ready.

“We’re just praying for a miracle, that I wake up and everything feels good,” he said.

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

Back in August, Taufatofua raced at the world championships in Hungary. He struggled to get his kayak into position and was left at the start as six other kayakers raced out and finished between 33 and 40 seconds. Taufatofua took 58.19 seconds, the slowest of 53 finishers among seven total first-round heats.

He has since been training in Brisbane, Australia. Taufatofua estimated he fell out of his kayak nearly 1,000 times into a river where he has seen bull sharks. But he has seen improvement, more than doubling his average speed to near his goal to be competitive.

“It was our only option in terms of body of water we could use,” he said. “I’m optimistic in the worst of times. I’ve put in all the work.”

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Pita Taufatofua, Tonga flag bearer, finishes last in kayak debut

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Pita Taufatofua, the Tonga Olympic flag bearer who went viral in Rio and PyeongChang, began his quest to make a third straight Olympics in a third different sport with a last-place finish in his opening-round heat at the world sprint kayak championships in Hungary on Wednesday.

The start of the heat appeared delayed as Taufatofua struggled to get his kayak into position in the water. He was left at the start as the other six kayakers raced out and finished between 33 and 40 seconds. Taufatofua took 58.19 seconds, a personal best and the slowest of 53 finishers among seven total heats.

“Well that was slightly better than the first time I competed in Taekwondo or skiing,” was tweeted from Taufatofua’s account. “Would have liked to start facing the right way but that’s life.”

Taufatofua, 35, was the oldest athlete in the heat by nearly a decade. He is also entered in doubles races with Malakai Ahokava, a 36-year-old sweet potato farmer listed as the Tonga canoe federation president, with heats Thursday and Friday. Taufatofua said Ahokava sold some of his crop to pay for travel expenses.

“He’s off at the farm,” Taufatofua said, adding that the two got in a boat together for the first time last week.

Taufatofua hopes to compete at the Tokyo Olympics in taekwondo, where he competed in Rio, and in sprint kayak.

But he hasn’t competed in taekwondo in three years and just started training kayak this spring. At worlds, Taufatofua told the BBC he is still having trouble staying afloat in the water.

Taufatofua said in announcing the new sport in April that it would be “largely impossible” to qualify for Tokyo. 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.

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

Taufatofua’s results at worlds this week has little bearing on his Olympic qualifying prospects. Rather, he just needed to compete in Hungary to stay eligible for the Olympics.

The key will be an Oceania qualifying event early next year, where one Olympic bid is available. He will likely have to beat the best kayakers from Australia and New Zealand to grab it. Australian Stephen Bird placed eighth at the Rio Olympics and 11th at the 2018 World Championships.

If Taufatofua fails, he could receive a special tripartite invitation sometimes offered to smaller nations like Tonga.

Taufatofua 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.

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.

NBC Olympic Researcher Reina Kern contributed to this report from Hungary.

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