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Sunday, September 26, 2021

Bet your shirt, there’s no Olympian like the Topless Tongan

Taekwondo, kayaking, cross-country skiing - the man who would do anything to be at all Olympic Games, Summer or Winter.

Written by Mihir Vasavda | Tokyo |
Updated: July 28, 2021 1:34:41 pm
Tonga's Olympic flag-bearer Pita Taufatofua has ended up competing in taekwondo at Tokyo 2020 after training for almost two years in kayaking. (AP Photo)

The topless Tongan has broken bones, survived glaciers and marched in -20 degrees celsius with nothing but coconut oil slathered on his upper body.

But Pita Taufatofua’s toughest test, he laughed, was on Tuesday. After training for almost two years in kayaking, he ended up competing in taekwondo.

Pita’s Olympics lasted just six minutes. But it was enough time to be a unique Olympian. The man who the world recognises from five years back as the bare-torso flag-bearer at Rio Games became the first athlete to complete a rare Olympics hat-trick – one Winter Games squeezed between the Summer Games.

Pita lost 24-3 in his opening round bout of the +80kg category against Russian world number one Vladislav Larin. For him, it felt like a win – and he celebrated each of the three points like that. “In Rio, I got one point and I was happy. Before I came here my uncle said to me, ‘if you get two points that’s a 100% improvement’. I said, ‘well, I’ll get three’,” he said.

Pita always does what he says.

Road to Rio

As a 12-year-old, he lined up on the road from the Vava’u airport to the city centre to welcome Tonga’s only Olympic medalist, Paea Wolfgramm, when returned home after winning the silver at the 1996 Atlanta Games. Pita held up the alphabet ‘P’ and when the car paraded through the streets, he said to himself, ‘I will become an Olympian’.

Twenty years later, he did. After breaking six bones, tearing three ligaments, spending three months on a wheelchair, spending a year-and-a-half on crutches and after ‘hundreds of hours’ of physiotherapy.

Pita calls the moment he qualified for the Olympics – via a golden point, taekwondo’s equivalent of a golden goal – as his life’s ‘greatest’. Immediately, he got down to preparation – not just related to his bout. “I was going to carry the flag of 1,000 years of history. My ancestor’s heart was in that flag,” he said.

So, he looked at what the ancient Polynesians wore. Fine-tuned it, consulted his family and prepared a special costume that would become his global identity – the ta’ovala, a mat that is wrapped around the waist. His family gave him hand-scraped coconut oil, which he smeared on his upper body to make a grand entry inside the Maracana. At that point, Pita did not realise how big a splash it would create.

#ToplessTongan began to trend. And in a Games Village that housed some of the biggest names in the world of sport, Pita garnered considerable fame for himself. He lost in the first round to the then world number 1 Sajjad Mardani.

But Pita was just getting started. “I had never experienced snow. So I thought, I should do it,” he laughed.

Cool Runnings

Of course, he did it. This sounded like a plot straight out of Cool Runnings – a man from a tropical nation deciding to compete in the Winter Olympics but it appealed to Pita only because it sounded so absurd. At the end of 2016, he set his sights on the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea. And he chose arguably one of the toughest sports in the Olympics, summer or winter, to compete: cross-country skiing.

Tonga’s Pita Taufatofua looks over after finishing in the men’s 15km cross country freestyle at the Alpensia cross country ski centre during the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympic Games (File Photo/AFP)

The challenges were immense. Pita’s body isn’t built for long-distance skiing. “I’m more suited for explosive, short-duration games like taekwondo,” he said. “But that’s why I wanted to do it; because it didn’t make sense.”

As it turned out, getting in shape for skiing became the least of his concerns. He got into debt worth thousands of dollars and frayed relationships and still got nowhere closer to qualifying for the Winter Olympics, finishing last in every qualifying competition he took part in.

“He thought he missed his last chance to qualify at a competition in Croatia after he missed his flight in Turkey,” says Tonga Olympic Association’s secretary-general Siosifa Taakitoa.

Out of cash and stranded at an airport, where he was stuck with two skiers from Mexico and Chile, Pita called his brother after learning about the final qualification tournament in Iceland. He booked a one-way ticket, landed in Reykjavik and began a three-day drive to Isafjordur, which is otherwise a day’s journey, through a snowstorm.

“They had blocked all the roads because of a number of avalanches that had hit the area,” he said. “So, we decided to park our car and hike the last 20-25km so that we could compete in our race.”

READ | India at Tokyo Olympics, Day 4 Highlights

The journey was worth it. Pita and his Mexican friend, German Baca, qualified for the Winter Games. In Pyeongchang, he once again entered the arena shirtless with an extra coating of coconut oil to ‘protect’ himself in extreme cold.

Pita wasn’t last in Pyeongchang, and that itself felt like a victory to him. He finished 23 minutes behind the eventual gold medalist but finished ahead of Baca.

Skiing to kayaking

He’d not even recovered from his Winter Games experience when Pita set his sights on the Tokyo Olympics – in kayaking. He chose kayak as a tribute to his ancestors who sailed around the pacific in their canoes. But he always wanted to become the first person in the modern era to compete in three unrelated sports at the Olympics.

“All my training up until five-and-a-half weeks ago, probably 80-90 percent of my training, was kayak sprint,” Pita, who lives in Brisbane, said. “We then had the world qualification tournament over in Russia (but) we are in a bubble, we can’t leave the country so I couldn’t even get across for that. So we said, ‘okay, we have got five-and-a-half weeks for taekwondo, we are probably going to fight the world No.1, sort your stuff out.”

He’s got his kayak to Tokyo, just in case.

Pita might not be a serial winner, in the literal sense of the term, but he embodies the clichéd Olympic spirit. “The Olympics for me isn’t about the athlete so much as it’s about the people watching. The six, seven billion people in the world who are trying to overcome things in their own life,” he said. “The athlete is a representation of us trying to overcome. I am fighting a world champion, I am trying to overcome.”

He was on a podcast with Snoop Dog and Kevin Hart the night before his bout. He does motivational talks and has been offered movie roles, which is hardly a surprise given his outrageous journey. “But Olympics-wise, I am just warming up,” he said. “I am just getting ready for the next one.”

Perhaps, he meant the Winter Games in Beijing next year.

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