He was the breakout star of the Rio Olympics, and now Aussie-Tongan Pita Taufatofua is contesting his third Games, bringing his high-energy optimism to the athletes’ village in Tokyo.
Taufatofua, 37, became an overnight sensation when he carried the flag at the Rio Games in 2016 clad in traditional Tongan dress – minus his shirt, and with a well-oiled chest. He did the same in freezing conditions at the PyeongChang winter games in 2018 after swapping from taekwondo to skiing.
The Brisbane-based athlete is back for his third Games, and after trying unsuccessfully to qualify in kayaking, will represent Tonga once again in taekwondo.
While he’s not considered a strong medal chance, he’s embracing every opportunity and brushing off his disappointment at being unable to travel to Siberia, Russia, for a final chance at qualifying in the kayak event.
“I’ve got one rule when it comes to disappointment. You’re only allowed to be disappointed for one evening. Then the next day you have to be good again,’’ he said.
“I’m excited. The travel, all the restrictions, all the COVID stuff, it’s just an honour to be here.’’
Taufatofua, the son of a Tongan father and Australian mother, is one of six Tongan athletes who will walk in the Parade of Nations, and wouldn’t rule out another scene-stealing appearance at the opening ceremony.
“You never know what’s going to happen in Tokyo. It’s a funny time in the world right now. Stranger things have happened,’’ he said.
But he urged the world’s eyes to focus on Malia Paseka, Tonga’s first Olympic taekwondo competitor, saying her qualification was an important opportunity to boost the perception of sport and healthy living in the Pacific.
Taufatofua worked for years in homeless shelters in Brisbane, and while he’s a full-time athlete these days, he’s also a UNICEF goodwill ambassador and spends time on a volunteer basis raising money for exercise equipment and training facilities in the Pacific.
“Kids have to go to New Zealand or Australia to get that high-level training. Well, what if you could start building some stuff in the islands and start increasing the level of living and the level of health in the islands,’’ he said.
As for his moonlighting as an Olympic heart-throb, Taufatofua says he considers it a “funny novelty’’ that gives him a platform to promote his UNICEF and sports work. Besides, his five brothers and sisters don’t give him any credit for it.
“Every time I come last in a kayak race it becomes a funny story for them. Come Christmas time, they’ll have a story: ‘remember that time you embarrassed yourself’ and I’m like, ‘well I was trying to forget but thanks for reminding me’ and that’s what my family is like, they keep me well-grounded and that’s very important because you don’t want to fly too close to the sun.’’
On July 27, Taufatofua will take on Russian world champion Vladislav Larin in the 80-plus taekwondo division.
“The majority of my training leading up to here was for the kayak qualification,’’ he said.
“Then I couldn’t get to Siberia then all of the sudden we realise I’ve got to go and fight the world champion in taekwondo. I’m like, ‘oh I might have to get my taekwondo shoes back on’.
“I got the world champion first up. The big guy from Russia. We went and had a look at the mats yesterday, they look pretty big to run around in. So if you see me running around I’m trying to avoid the Russian’s kicks.’’