WELLINGTON: Tongan athlete Pita Taufatofua – the bare-chested flag-bearer who became an online sensation at both the Rio and Pyeongchang Olympics – plans to break out the baby oil once again and compete at the Tokyo Games in 2020.
After travelling to Brazil as a taekwondo fighter and South Korea as a cross-country skier, Taufatofua is aiming to paddle his way to the Tokyo Olympics as a kayaker.
“I’m trying to be the first person in the modern Olympics to do three unrelated sports,” said the 35-year-old, who will also attempt to compete again in taekwondo in Japan.
“You’ll have indoor sports, winter with the cross country skiing and water,” he told AFP.
“I grew up in a kayak on the ocean, so it’s not such a big leap for me.”
Taufatofua first captured global attention when he appeared at the Rio opening ceremony shirtless in 2016, his torso glistening in oil and wearing just a traditional Tongan ta’ovala mat around his waist.
After the ceremony he went viral, racking up 45 million mentions on Twitter and later appearing on US talk shows.
He repeated his performance two years later at Pyeongchang, this time risking frostbite in sub-zero temperatures.
Brisbane-born but fiercely proud of his Tongan heritage,
Taufatofua had been practising taekwondo for 15 years before the Rio Games.
Qualifying for Pyeongchang was a much more bizarre affair. Not only had Taufatofua never skied before, he’d only seen snow once in his life.
He made it after completing a training regime that included strapping planks of wood to his feet, in an attempt to recreate the rigours of cross-country skiing in sweltering Australian heat.
Preparation for the 200 metre kayak sprint in Tokyo has been no less madcap, with Taufatofua starting his bid for Olympic glory paddling a plastic toy canoe – the only vessel he had available.
He now has a proper kayak but it weighs 40 kilograms (88 pounds) and, compared to the sleek 10 kilogram Olympic vessels, more closely resembles a bathtub.
“I’ve sat on a race kayak and I’m struggling just to even balance on the thing at the moment,” he said.
“Maybe in time we’ll get the right kayak but for now we don’t have the funds.”
He faces a tough challenge to reach Tokyo. He needs to either finish in the top five at the World Championships in Hungary in August, or win outright at the Oceania qualifiers against seasoned rivals from Australia and New Zealand.
Taufatofua was eliminated in the first round of the taekwondo competition in Rio and finished 114th out of 119 in his event in Pyeongchang.
But results are not the prime motivation for the personable engineering graduate, who works with homeless children when not pursuing quixotic sporting quests.
“I’m not scared of coming last, I’m not scared of failing in front of everyone,” he said.
“That gives me freedom to allow myself to try. It’s about what’s the next level that we can try and achieve.”
Taufatofua’s Olympic adventures are not for everyone. His tilt at the winter Games left some established skiers decidedly off-piste.
“I think he looks better covered in oil than with skis on his feet,” sniffed one Norwegian Olympic champion.
The kayaking fraternity have been more welcoming, with the International Canoe Federation tweeting its support.
“We are very excited to have @pitaTofua choose our sport to target a potential third Olympics! It will be a tough road, but if anyone can do it…,” it posted. – AFP