The Tongan athlete Pita Taufatofua has decided to withdraw from the Beijing Winter Games to focus on providing aid to Tonga after a tsunami devastated the island nation earlier this month.
“Right now my focus is on making sure that we can help with the Tonga rebuild,” Taufatofua said in an interview with Olympics.com, which published an article last week stating that the Tongan would not compete at the 2022 Games that start in the Chinese capital next week.
On Jan. 15, an undersea volcano located near Tonga violently erupted with force hundreds of times more powerful than an atomic bomb. This expelled miles-high ash and gas into the air and triggered huge tsunamis in the South Pacific. The devastation killed at least three locals and forced hundreds others to evacuate. Flooding was reported as far as Santa Cruz, California.
Though communication has been partially restored after it was entirely cut off in the immediate wake of the disaster, some residents are still unable to return to their homes. Only intermittent access to the internet has been restored.
One of very few athletes to compete in both summer and winter events in the Olympics, in taekwondo and cross-country skiing, Taufatofua told VICE World News there was still more to do to help Tongans recover from the effects of the eruption, given that ash had blanketed the country.
“They’ve only ever drunk from rain water tanks, and a lot of them are covered in ash,” he said in an interview on Friday.
“Ash has gone off the roofs, into the tank, so you’ve got 10,000-liter tanks with this much ash in it,” he said. “Sulfur and water. Not a good mix.”
Experts warn that fallen ash from the recent eruption could pose significant health risks, causing breathing difficulties and irritation in the lungs, skin and eyes. Efforts are underway to clean up fallen ash that currently blankets streets and homes.
Since the massive volcanic eruption triggered powerful waves that inundated homes, Taufatofua has set up a GoFundMe page to raise funds for disaster relief. The 38-year-old has also coordinated efforts to provide bread, part of a staple Tongan breakfast, to residents on outer islands. “We’re feeding thousands and thousands of people warm fresh bread,” he said.
“And that means a lot to the people on the outer islands, because that’s their main meal in the morning, bread and tea—not everybody can afford the food,” Taufatofua added.
Last week, the athlete asked to borrow SpaceX CEO Elon Musk’s wifi. Taufatofua referred to Starlink, a division of the aerospace company that uses satellites in low orbit to provide high-speed internet worldwide.
In response, the world’s richest man tweeted, “Could people from Tonga let us know if it is important for SpaceX to send over Starlink terminals?” Replying to further questions from Twitter users on Jan. 21, Musk said providing Starlink access in the region was “a hard thing for us to do right now” and sought confirmation from Tongans that his service was needed. He had not made any public comments about his offer since.
Tonga lies in the Southwestern Pacific and is home to about 170 islands and over 100,000 people. The Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcano that erupted violently in mid-January sits in the Pacific Ring of Fire, where a majority of the world’s volcanic explosions and earthquakes occur.
The Olympian lost touch with his father for days after the tsunami until Jan. 21, when his 74-year-old father, the governor of Ha’Apai in central Tonga, walked through the door of his home, apparently unscathed.
According to Taufatofua, his father boarded a navy boat immediately after the tsunami, where he supported rescue and first response on Ha’apai. After a week of helping first aid, the politician was able to take a small boat back to his home.
The Olympian said his father wanted to immediately go back to helping his community, but the family wouldn’t let him and made him rest after his “adventure.”
“I have so much admiration for him. He gets back to Ha’Apai, and all he wants to do is keep working,” Taufatofua said.
“I had to message my family and say ‘Hey, why is he out there sweeping? Why is he out there with everyone sweeping the runway? Get him a mask,’ but he just wants to get in amongst it,” he said.