Shirtless Tongan Pita Taufatofua reveals kayak as new sport for third Olympic bid

Famous flagbearer is aiming to compete at Tokyo 2020 in his third Olympic sport after representing Tonga in taekwondo and cross-country skiing.

His coconut-oiled torso caught everyone’s attention at Rio 2016.

Now Pita Taufatofua’s plan is to be at the Olympics for a third time in Tokyo, for the 200m kayak event.

“Our dream now is to be the first person in the modern era to represent three unrelated sports at an Olympic Games and in successive Games,” he said in an extensive interview with Olympic Channel on announcing the new aim.

The 35-year-old represented Tonga at Rio 2016 in taekwondo and at PyeongChang 2018 in cross-country skiing.

Now, he hopes to make it three consecutive Olympic Games appearances as an athlete.

I chose kayak because it's something close to my heart. It's something that Polynesians have done for a thousand years, travelling from island to island. - Pita Taufatofua to Olympic Channel

The Olympic Channel Podcast spoke to the 35-year-old as he launches his next Olympic mission.

The ‘Shirtless Tongan’ takes on kayaking for Tokyo 2020

The ‘Shirtless Tongan’ takes on kayaking for Tokyo 2020

Growing up

From very early in his life, Pita Taufatofua wanted to be an Olympian.

He remembers boxer Paea Wolfgramm returning with his Olympic silver medal to the island in 1996.

It left a big impression.

“From that moment when I saw Paea Wolfgramm wave at me, I said, ‘I'm going to be Tonga's first taekwondo Olympian.’” Pita told us.

His father was a farmer and his mother worked as a nurse.

“Pita was always a determined lad,” said Pita’s father (who is also called Pita).

“He always knew what he wanted to do and followed it through."

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My life is about to change once again.... First let me take you on a journey ...This is me. I was a happy but also an angry kid, a strange mix. I dreamt of becoming an Olympian but I was much smaller than the others. Being angry and fighting with the bigger boys was how I coped and tried to fit in. It wasn’t that I wanted to fight but sometimes I felt that I had to. My Father is dark skinned and Tongan and my Mother is white. One day the class bully, twice my size, turned to me in class and said that my Mother should return back to her country as people like her were stealing and didn’t belong in Tonga. She was a nurse and we were very poor. I stood up and broke my chair over the bully’s back, this resulted in a fight and we both ended up in the Principals office crying and asking each other for forgiveness... We didn’t want our parents to find out we were fighting in school as that meant more punishment.. so we hugged and told the principal we were best buddies and our parents never found out...Growing up in Tonga was a strange mix of fighting and forgiving....

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Taekwondo

Young Pita was going to need plenty of determination to make an Olympic Games.

He missed out on qualification for Beijing 2008 and London 2012 by small margins.

“I was quite upset for months after 2008. It was quite tough,” said Pita.

But in the four years in between Beijing and London, Pita discovered an important life lesson.

“I'd already learnt that sometimes in life we win, sometimes in life we don't win. But it's our attitude and whether we stay happy after that happens that is the most important thing.”

Even so, the Tongan admits he’s been unable to surpass the moment that he did qualify for Rio 2016 after 20 years of trying.

I would describe (it) as the greatest moment that I've ever experienced - Pita on Olympic qualification

“People ask me about the Opening Ceremony at the Rio Olympics, and it was fantastic, but nothing comes close to the moment that I qualified to become a summer Olympian.”

Instant fame at Rio 2016

There’s a reason people ask Pita about the Opening Ceremony.

His eye-catching traditional outfit blew up on the internet and overnight he became known to the world as the ‘Shirtless Tongan’.

But it nearly didn’t happen.

Pita had been told not to wear his costume.

“My coach carried it in his bag… and pulled out the costume (at the last minute).

“We had spent our whole lives getting ready for this Olympics. There was no way we weren't going to wear it.”

“Our plan was to represent our heritage. But if the internet's coming to a grinding halt (after I walked out shirtless) then I think it needs some more coconut oil in its machinery.”

Pita admits that the huge attention was difficult to comprehend at the time.

He lost his first round taekwondo bout and was out of the Olympic competition.

“I can never find any kind of excuse… As a sportsman I have to present my best… On the day, I fell short.”

Beating the odds for PyeongChang 2018

The newfound notoriety meant that his life could take a new turn.

“There were lots of other opportunities that came my way after Rio, but I said, 'No, I'm going to try for a Winter Olympics in a sport I didn't know how to do.’”

The sport he chose is one of the most brutal in the Olympic programme: Cross-country skiing.

“People have the misconception that I don't want to quit. The truth is… I wanted to quit every single race. Every first lap of every race I wanted to quit.”

The mission also meant to financial difficulties and he ended up with a debt of $40,000us.

“I lost many things, I lost relationships, I lost opportunities, I lost money but this is the price we have to pay to become an Olympian.”

Tough qualification

He came very close to missing out on a place at PyeongChang 2018.

It all came down to a race in Iceland, but just getting to the start line was difficult.

He had a one-way ticket to the Artic Circle bought with his brother’s frequent flyer points.

“It was in not Reykjavik but Isafjordur (which) is a day's drive out of the main capital of Iceland.

“The problem was that a snow storm had come and so all the flights flying in there had been cancelled.

“So, we had to hire a car, and drive through a snowstorm (for three days).”

The snow was so bad that they even considered hiking the last 20km but eventually the roads were cleared.

Pita and his new friend German Madrazo of Mexico qualified for the Olympic Games.

He took his top off again for the Opening Ceremony in South Korea as the flagbearer.

And in the 15km cross country skiing race he finished 114th.

He welcomed his friend, Mexican German Madrazo, who came in last.

“I was just going to wait for him (at the finish line). And then he came in, in this magical moment carrying the Mexican flag. I was just so proud for him.”

A new mission

Pita is now back in preparing in Tonga on more familiar territory.

“My family home is right on the lagoon so I'm able to walk down the stairs and jump straight in the kayak… It's the perfect location for me to be able to practise.”

Being in the nature is also something that is important to Taufatofua who works with Unicef in trying to change attitudes to the environment.

“The ocean provides so much for our planet, not just for Tonga.

“The Pacific Ocean provides fish for people all over the world (and is) one of the largest carbon sinks for greenhouse emissions.

“Protecting the environment, plastics, single-use plastics and climate change - it's a big deal for me.”

And for anyone who criticises his decision to go for a third Olympic sport?

“I think people are very scared to chase after dreams or and goals. They're scared of what the person on the internet who they've never met is going to say.

“We don't have that fear.”

Pita Taufatofua is the guest on this week's Olympic Channel Podcast.

Each week we find the biggest athletes and speakers athletes to talk about the Olympics.

Head here for ways to listen and subscribe.

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