Pita Taufatofua’s name might not ring a bell to most people, but a quick Google Images search of his name and you might remember him.
The two-time Olympian has become a viral sensation, not for what he did in competition, but rather for his shirtless, oiled body during the opening ceremonies of the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Games and the Olympic Games. 2018 winter in Pyeongchang.
But while Taufatofua may be known as an Olympic eye-candy, it is much more than that. He’s a UNICEF ambassador, a man who tries to inspire all of Oceania and now a three-time Olympian.
That’s right, Taufatofua will be in Tokyo for this year’s Games.
After making the jump in cross-country skiing for the Winter Games, the 37-year-old will compete in taekwondo again after qualifying last year. Since qualifying before the start of the pandemic, it has been an intense year for Taufatofua to continue training as he has been in quarantine in Australia since last March.
âWe haven’t been able to go to other countries to compete to compete with other people,â Taufatofua told USA TODAY. “There were other challenges, but there is no victory without going through battles first.”
His goal? Being the first person to qualify for three different Olympics in three different sports with his eyes on speed kayaking – he has been training for almost two years.
However, a few days before the Oceania qualifying tournament, Taufatofua broke a rib which made him difficult to place. Fortunately, there was another opportunity to qualify in Russia, but COVID travel restrictions prevented him from doing so.
But he does not lose hope. He brings his paddle with him to Tokyo.
âWe need an Olympic miracle,â said Taufatofua. “I don’t know what, but what I do know is that the Olympics are about never giving up.”
He wants to show that even people like him, who didn’t grow up with much, can succeed in their Olympic challenges.
âIf I go there and do three Olympics, maybe one of the kids watching says, ‘I’m going to try this,’ then they push each other. And by pushing each other they improve the person. next to them and the person next to them, âhe said.
Taufatofua chose to compete in kayaking because he said that what he loves most about the sport is the beauty of the sea. His respect for the environment has been one of the main motivations in his choice of clothing in past matches.
At the 2016 Games, Taufatofua wore a tapa cloth, a symbolic Tongan garment worn at official events. In 2020, he wore the ta’ovala, which is a traditional handmade Tongan costume, also worn for formal occasions and meant to respect the land.
Taufatofua chose to wear the traditional clothes because it was only recently that Tongans learned what to wear from Olympic officials, which he said would not properly represent his country.
âWhen we leave, we represent a country. We don’t represent 80 years of history, we have to represent hundreds and hundreds of years of history, âhe said. “Maybe now is the time for everyone in the world to listen to what we, indigenous and cultural peoples, have to offer.”
Even with the cultural significance, Taufatofua still pushes Twitter into a frenzy during ceremonies. He said he doesn’t mind the attention at all and finds it “fun”.
He said he was happy to use his fame to celebrate and publicize his small country.
âIf you go to Tonga and have problems, you will be fed. As a tourist, someone will feed you and give you everything they have, âhe said. âThis is what I believe to be a Tonga and to be a Polynesian; understand that we don’t have much, but whatever we have we are ready to give to the world.
As a UNICEF Ambassador, his biggest dream is to build an Olympic training center in Tonga and different parts of the neighboring islands with coaches and workshops that children would have access to free of charge.
Even though he may not be able to kayak at this year’s Games, he is not ruling out another opportunity to compete in another sport at the next Winter or Summer Games. Taufatofua is hoping he can compete in 2032 as well, as Brisbane, Australia is scheduled to be selected as the host. Even if he doesn’t get any medals, he knows he is still winning something.
âI hope to get a medal. But for me the biggest coin is knowing that there are people watching who can be inspired, âTaufatofua said.
And for people who want to know if he will reprise his role as standard bearer, Taufatofua says he doesn’t know given the uncertainty of what the opening ceremonies will look like. His chances of coming back are high given that Tonga only has six athletes at this year’s Games.
However, what he does know is how proud he is to have his Olympian taekwondo colleague Malia Paseka the first Tongan athlete to carry the flag, and he says he would be honored to carry the flag to its ratings.
If he’s lucky enough to join Paseka, he won’t say if he’ll show up shirtless again.
âYou know what they say, ‘just keep your eyes open’. “
Follow Jordan Mendoza on Twitter: @jord_mendoza.