Taufatofua first hit gold on the internet for bearing the Tongan flag at the opening ceremony of the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, where he was bare-chested and covered in coconut oil while dressed in a traditional Tongan taʻovala, a mat made out of woven pandanus tree leaves that is wrapped around the waist.
He has since worn different versions of the attire while bearing the Tongan flag at two more Olympic Games. Taufatofua was at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang as a cross-country skier (the country’s only representative), and now at the ongoing Summer Olympics in Tokyo, where he competed in the +80 kilogram Taekwondo event.
Taufatofua’s sartorial nods to his country’s culture landed him in headlines and social media feeds around the world, but he said that was not his intention.
“The goal wasn’t to go viral,” Taufatofua told VICE from the Olympic Village in Tokyo. “And actually, right now, in the middle of COVID, I don’t know if going viral sounds as fantastic as people think it sounds,” he joked.
Pita Taufatofua with fellow Tongan flag bearer Malia Paseka at the Tokyo Olympics Parade of Nations. Photo: Courtesy of Pita Taufatofua
Now 37 years old, he’s one of only a few athletes to compete in three consecutive Olympics (summer and winter). Taufatofua was always interested in sports, but he told VICE that he wasn’t always the most athletic kid.
“In fact, I was less athletic than everyone in my grade,” he said. “I was kind of like that little dog that was always barking at the bigger dogs, thinking I was one of them, when ultimately I was just an ankle-biting noisy little puppy.”
He was part of his school’s rugby team for years, but never got to play.
“I never missed a training session but I was such a small, underdeveloped kid that my coach never once put me on the rugby field,” said Taufatofua. “Imagine being a kid who’s training every single day with the team, and you never get a run on.”
Taufatofua found more success training in Taekwondo, which he started when he was 5 years old. At Rio 2016, he competed in the +80 kilogram tournament. He lost in his first match but was undeterred. While other athletes stick to training in one sport and waiting four years for another go at an Olympic gold, Taufatofua waited only half that time by joining a different, unexpected event at the winter games—cross-country skiing.
“It hasn’t snowed in Tonga for 10,000 years,” he said. “It made no sense, and that’s why I had to do it.”
He was also significantly larger than the average cross-country skier and had no experience in endurance sports. He wanted to prove to other people and to himself that he could overcome challenges with the right mindset. For him, it wasn’t just about athleticism, it was about perseverance.
He competed in the 15-kilometer free skiing event at the 2018 Winter Olympics and finished 110th place out of 119 skiers on the snowy slopes. Soon after that, he started training to compete in this year’s Olympics—this time, for two events: the +80 kilogram Taekwondo event and the 100-meter men’s kayak single race.
He had never tried, let alone competed in, kayaking before deciding to train for it, but, like his viral attire as a flag bearer, he wanted to play a sport that honored his roots, one that has links to Polynesian history. Polynesians were known to travel by canoe, which is why he thinks kayaking could be an inspiration for Polynesian youth.
A social worker since he was in his teens, Taufatofua has worked with youth in homeless shelters for years and is currently a UNICEF Ambassador to the Pacific. He said his experiences helping kids overcome challenges show him how strong the human spirit can be, and how people can go through the worst things and still come out on top.
“Ultimately, it taught me how to be a better Olympian,” he said.
Today, he’s working on building free exercise facilities and programs for kids in Tonga and the Pacific. Taufatofua said he does all this to prove that there’s always a way out of struggles.
In 2019, he put what he had learned as an athlete and advocate into a book titled The Motivation Station: An Essential Guide to Becoming Your Greatest Version. “It’s self-published, self-written, self-edited,” he laughed.
“All of [what I do] is so that I can reach as many people as possible who are going through difficult times,” he said. “I want more people to overcome their challenges, and live the best lives that we can.”
Taufatofua lost his first match and repechage in this year’s Taekwondo tournament. Due to an injured rib at a qualifying event and lockdown restrictions that prevented him from joining another one, he did not qualify for this year’s kayak races. But he hasn’t given up yet, holding on to hope that he can join the race as a Tripartite Commission invitee.
“I brought my kayak pedal anyway,” he said. “Just in case there’s a spare lane for me.”
Correction: A previous version of the article incorrectly said that Pita Taufatofua was the first person to compete in three consecutive Olympics. We regret the error.
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