Shirtless Tongan flag-bearer Pita Taufatofua in bid for third Olympic sport


Pita Taufatofua at the Winter Olympics Closing Ceremony in 2018

 Pita Taufatofua has already appeared at both the summer and winter Olympic Games. Photograph: Dan Istitene/Getty Images

Pita Taufatofua, the Tongan who attracted 250 million Google hits when he appeared oiled and shirtless in his national costume at the Rio Olympics opening ceremony, has announced his third Olympic bid – in two different sports.

Taufatofua competed at Rio in taekwondo, crashing out in the first round to the Iranian Sajjad Mardani. It had taken 15 years of injury, disappointment and determination to get to the Olympics but he walked away a global celebrity; it just wasn’t for sporting glory.

Less than two years later he came back at the Winter Olympics at Pyeongchang, this time as a cross-country skier. He had grown up in Tonga, lived in Brisbane, and had barely seen snow when he began his training on roller skis. “I ate a lot of concrete, but I had one year to qualify,” he said.

He didn’t actually meet snow until four months before the Games, where at the qualifying events he came last in almost every race against world champion Norwegians and Scandinavians. At the 11th hour he managed to qualify in a final race on a fjord in Iceland, and managed to finish only 25 minutes behind Dario Cologna from Switzerland, at Pyeongchang.

This time he will attempt another new sport, sprint kayaking. “It is a brute power sort of a sport,” Taufatofua said. He also plans to try again to qualify in taekwondo. “I don’t even know if two sports are allowed,” he admitted.

So far his kayak training has been mainly “strength and conditioning”, while he struggles to find balance in a kayak on the Brisbane river. “It is a bit of a challenge, these kayaks are very tippy, you just think about tipping and you will flip over. Brisbane river has a strong current and bull sharks. So we have to figure out ways to try and stay in the kayak and not tip over,” he said.

He frequently travels back to Tonga, to “do stuff in the lagoon.”

Being Polynesian, from a South Pacific island, Taufatofua feels deeply connected to kayaking. “It is a sport that runs in our blood,” he said. “We have got a strong connection with the ocean. One thousand years before Cook and Tasman our ancestors came to the islands in outrigger canoes with nothing.”

Taufatofua has been on the water from a young age. “I would go out fishing on an outrigger canoe, paddle out at the age of seven, and put a fishing line in,” he said.

But he admits that racing is a different story. “It is a very difficult and challenging sport,” he said. “Just to balance and race requires techniques that other kayakers having been doing their whole lives. For Tonga to qualify for a place I would need to beat Australia, New Zealand and all the other islands. There is only one spot for Oceania at the Olympics. It is kind of impossible which I like, to qualify I would have to beat Olympic medalists in a new sport. It is the impossible dream.”

With him from the beginning has been his taekwondo coach Master Paul Sitapa, who is still his coach. “[He] gets me out in the boats on the lagoon at midnight and makes me paddle twice as fast the next day.”

He is also launching his book, Motivation Station. “I wrote every word, motivation is definitely a big thing for me,” he said. He is also talking about how climate change is accelerating in the Pacific Islands. An engineering graduate from the University of Queensland who worked with homeless children in Brisbane for 15 years while attempting to qualify for his first Olympics, Taufatofua is a many-faceted athlete.

If he doesn’t make it to the Olympics in either sport, Taufatofua, a “strong” Christian said, “I will be happy. It is about putting your best foot forward. My goal is to get a medal, but there is my plan, life’s plan and what happens in the middle. But hopefully it will be more towards my plan.”