The topless Tongan returns for Tokyo 2020: Bare-chested flag bearer to compete again at the Olympics
He was the star of the opening ceremony at the 2016 Olympic Games, and again two years later as a winter Olympian in PyeongChang. And now Tonga’s Pita Taufatofua is back for this third Olympics, and sure to catch the eye again.
Who is Pita Taufatofua and why is he famous?
Taufatofua shot to fame five years ago. Having qualified for the sport of taekwondo, he took a rather different approach to being named flag bearer for his native Tonga, going viral when he oiled himself up and appeared at the 2016 opening ceremony wearing nothing but a taʻovala (a Tongan mat which is wrapped around the waist) and a shell necklace.
Some initially assumed he was sweating profusely but it became apparent that he had applied copious amounts of oil to his torso.
During the actual taekwondo tournament, Taufatofua was eliminated in his first bout but his fame lived on.
The 37-year-old was born in Australia but raised in Tonga. One of seven siblings, his father was an agricultural worker and his mother a nurse.
Despite the obvious lack of access to snow, he began learning form and technique by watching YouTube videos of professional races and completed most of his qualification requirements in roller ski races, needing only to make a final qualifying time on snow.
As Tonga’s second ever Winter Olympian, and only representative in PyeongChang, flag-bearing honours once again fell to him – and he approached it just the same, going shirtless despite the freezing temperatures. As for the sport, he narrowly avoided finishing in last place, finishing 114th out of 119 skiers in the 15km freestyle race.
In his role as a Unicef ambassador Taufatofua has also spent time working with homelessness charities and young leaders programmes in his homeland while also raising awareness about the impacts of global warming. He has had no shortage of offers to make his story into a film, reportedly turning down a ‘multi-million dollar’ offer last year over concerns the documentary would have over-emphasised a Cool Runnings-style narrative that did not ring true.
What sport is he competing in at Tokyo 2020?
Taufatofua intended to make it three different sports competed in at three different Olympics, setting out his aim to compete in canoe sprint. He told BBC Sport in an interview that: “It’s a sport that’s close to my heart as it’s what my ancestors did for thousands of years when they colonised the Polynesian islands.”
Sadly for the Tongan, the attempt proved unsuccessful. He struggled to get his kayak facing the right way in the opening round heat of the World Canoe Sprint Championships in August 2019 and while still finishing the race, he was the slowest of 53 finishers among seven total heats.
He was also unsuccessful at the Oceania continental qualifier in February 2020 but, determined not to let his Olympic dream die, he switched attention back to taekwondo, managing to earn qualification for Tokyo 2020.
What are his chances?
Taufatofua will compete in the men’s +80kg, the same category as Great Britain’s Mahama Cho. While the latter is targeting a medal, the Tongan’s hopes will be simply to record a victory in his opening bout.
Will be the flag-bearer again?
Tonga is expected to take a handful of athletes to Tokyo and it is unclear yet who will be named flag-bearer. Taufatofua is also unsure whether Covid-19 restrictions will prevent him from performing his trademark routine in Tokyo.