PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — Pita Taufatofua has three goals for Friday’s 15-kilometer freestyle cross-country ski race. Firstly, having had just 12 weeks on snow ever, he wants to finish the race before they turn the lights off. Secondly he wants to avoid skiing into a tree. And thirdly, and this was the underpinning theme he delivered Wednesday, he wants to be a figure of inspiration for those back in Tonga and Polynesia.
The Tongan flag-bearer shot to fame at the Rio 2016 Games for his topless ceremony walk, and he repeated it here in Pyeongchang despite the freezing temperatures. As he spoke about his journey, fielded questions about Valentine’s Day and his local South Korean fan club, his hopes for Friday’s race boil down to one thing: inspiring anyone in all walks of life to believe in the impossible.
The Winter Olympics is well-versed in unlikely heroes. From Eddie “The Eagle” Edwards, to the Jamaica bobsleigh team that inspired “Cool Runnings,” Taufatofua slots into this bracket of the outlier. But for all the chuckles as his coach, Thomas Jacob, played down his chances Friday, and Taufatofua’s methodical answering of questions equally bringing with it sympathetic laughs at his struggles, the message is this is not a gimmick.
“This is not a joke, it’s not a one-time appearance,” said Steve Grundmann, the head of sport for the Royal Tonga Ski Federation. “We want something consistent, durable. We want to open doors, we want to recruit Tongans, Polynesians, to do the sports they love.”
He was born in Australia, but grew up in Tonga. And as he detailed his backstory, his explanation for this remarkable goal of seeking to inspire a nation comes from two pillars of motivation. Firstly, as a child he loved rugby, but having played for four years, he was never given a chance on the field. “As a kid I was the smallest, the skinniest, the shortest, the slowest kid in school. It told me I am resilient, I don’t give up … and I needed better coaches.” And then there was his job as a youth worker, helping homeless children. “I learnt from them the power of the human spirit to go on when times are tough,” he said. “I worked for 10 years with homeless kids and I have to share their knowledge with the world.”
The Olympic fire in him was lit back in 1996 when Paea Wolfgramm came back from Atlanta with the silver medal in super heavyweight boxing. He remembers standing on the side of the road, as Wolfgramm drove past in the open-top car. He thought Wolfgramm looked him in the eye. The dream started. In Rio, he competed in Taekwondo. He ended up lasting just six minutes, losing 16-1, but shot to world prominence for his flag-bearing exploits in the opening ceremony.
Then he decided to turn to the Pyeongchang Games and set about qualifying. “This journey for me has been the hardest thing I’ve had to do in my life,” he said. “I needed to find the most difficult thing I could find and on a personal level it was cross country skiing. I’m not a distance athlete, I don’t know much about snow but I’m learning.
“The goal was to qualify in a one-year time frame. It was a great idea at the time. After I told the world, I found out how hard it was to become a cross country skier at an Olympic level. I’ve had 12 weeks on snow in my whole life, it will be 13 if the race takes me a week to finish… hopefully not!”
He learnt on roller skis, recognised by the International Ski Federation, and he had four runs under the 300-point qualifying target but then opportunities dried up and he needed a further one on snow. He crowd-funded his way over to Europe, and after three failed attempts, he completed the journey in Iceland, scoring 280 points. Olympic dream realised. “I do this publically, I succeed publically. But I also fail publically as well but I show people they can fail, and still be happy when they fail and get up and laugh, try again and maybe fail again. That’s the message.”
Pita Taufatofua, Tonga’s shirtless Olympic flag bearer, braves the cold as he trains for cross-country skiing ahead of the 2018 Winter Games.
As he faced the media here on Wednesday, questions flitted between the serious and the absurd. He spoke about the current devastation back in Tonga following Cyclone Gita, and his hopes to help there. Then the tone of the news conference shifted to Valentine’s Day, his growing fan base of admirers and what they can do to catch his eye. “I’m married to the sport, so maybe become a sport,” he answered.
But it was about the Olympics and questions about Tonga where he seemed most comfortable. He talked animatedly about the Olympic Creed. “It’s about struggle,” he said. “The guy who gets a gold medal will burn his lungs until he collapses at the finish line, the same goes for the guy who finishes last, none of them will give up.” One of his followers on Instagram — he now has 166,000 folk keeping an eye on him — sent him a message saying they want to compete for the British Virgin Islands at Beijing 2022 in cross-country skiing. “I feel like I’ve done my job, I feel I’ve accomplished something.”
He is fully aware that some people will only remember his Olympic exploits for his topless, oiled-up tactic, but there is seemingly a deeply serious side to him, one in touch with his Tongan blood. “If my ancestors can sail across the Pacific Ocean for a thousand years, then I can walk through an opening ceremony without a shirt on for 25 minutes and represent a thousand-year heritage. The last 50, 60 years that’s when we’ve been told to wear; I want to represent 1,000 years of history.”
Little is expected from him on Friday, as he has not registered a time under 54 minutes in the 15km freestyle. But he is already one of the stories of these Games. He has plans for the future, maybe a third Games in a sport involving water, but he wants the world to know he’s not just the topless flag-bearer. His mission is much more than that.
“I won’t win a medal on Friday, but in four years someone from Tonga might, in eight years someone from the Pacific might,” he said. “But more importantly those watching in the Pacific, they’ll have access to something they never knew existed before. That’s why I’m here and put myself through the difficulty of a sport that didn’t align physically with me at all. That’s why I did it, to open these doors.”