AFP/Pyeongchang, South Korea
Topless Tongan flag-bearer Pita Taufatofua makes his Winter Olympic debut tomorrow in cross-country skiing, and it’s fair to say that he’s aiming low.
“First step, finish before they turn the lights off, that’s number one. Don’t ski into a tree, that’s number two.”
The 34-year-old became a social media sensation when he appeared at the Rio 2016 Olympics opening ceremony with his shirt off, his torso glistening in oil and wearing just a traditional ta’ovala mat round his waist.
He then repeated the trick at last Friday’s opening ceremony in Pyeongchang — even as temperatures dipped well below zero — brandishing the Tongan flag like a spear and becoming an online hit all over again.
After Rio, where he lost in the first round in taekwondo, Taufatofua turned to cross-country skiing, even though he has only spent 12 weeks on the snow grappling with the hugely demanding sport.
Brisbane-born but fiercely proud of his Tongan heritage, self-confessed beach bum Taufatofua said yesterday that he was not joking in hoping he can at least finish the Olympic event without suffering a major mishap — such as losing a ski.
“I’ve had 12 weeks on snow in my whole life so on Friday I’ll have close to 13 weeks on snow if the race takes me a week to finish... hopefully not, it would be a good story wouldn’t it!
“It sounds a bit like a joke, but I’ll tell you, when your spirit says you always finish a race and you lose a ski in the first lap of six, you question your spirit sometimes.”
Speaking at a packed press conference in Pyeongchang, Taufatofua, a social worker who helps children when not trying out new Olympic sports, added: “The truth of the matter is that I’ve had a short time on snow, I won’t win a medal on Friday.
“But in four years, someone from Tonga might. In eight years, someone from the Pacific might.
“But more importantly, people from the Pacific, these kids who are watching now, they will have access to something that they never knew existed before. And to me, that’s why I’m here.”
Taufatofua’s trainer, the taciturn Thomas Jacob, was hardly any more enthusiastic about his man’s chances in the most brutal of disciplines.
He said: “He always tells us that he wants to finish, I think he will, it’s a very hard course. Maybe last, maybe not.”
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