Tonga flag bearer from Rio qualifies for Winter Olympics
Pita Taufatofua, the shirtless, oiled-up Tongan flag bearer from the Rio Games, qualified for the PyeongChang Olympics in cross-country skiing on Saturday.
“This was my last race possible, and we did it,” Taufatofua said in an interview with Olympic Channel, which also reported that he qualified. “This is a miracle.”
Taufatofua qualified at the final weekend of the Olympic qualifying period in Iceland, which is more than 9,000 miles from his home archipelago.
The last two events before qualification ends were Saturday’s freestyle race and a classic race scheduled for Sunday.
Taufatofua completed a journey this season that included races in Colombia, Turkey, Poland and Armenia.
Taufatofua said he had seven chances to qualify for PyeongChang before Saturday and failed in all of them, finishing last each time (The official results show Taufatofua beating skiers from Malaysia and Mexico in some of these races.).
Taufatofua scrambled to make it to Iceland from Croatia this week. He said his group drove three days through a blizzard, an avalanche closing off the road at one point.
“People don’t see the hard work that goes behind,” he said. “They just see the shiny guy that walks with the flag.”
Taufatofua lost his opening Olympic taekwondo match by mercy rule in Rio, two weeks after his viral appearance in the Opening Ceremony.
He announced in December 2016 that he was switching to cross-country skiing in a bid for PyeongChang.
Cross-country, while a physically taxing pursuit, is one of the easier Winter Olympic sports to gain qualification for athletes from nations without much Winter Games history.
“I decided to find the hardest sport possible because I needed a new challenge,” Taufatofua said. “The goal was to do it one year, and we did it.”
Taufatofua debuted at the 2017 World Championships and was 153rd of 156 finishers in the 1.6km sprint freestyle.
It took Taufatofua 5 minutes, 44.72 seconds to complete the course in Lahti, Finland, which was about 10,000 miles from Tonga. The top qualifier clocked 3:11.72.
How will he dress at the PyeongChang Opening Ceremony, where outdoor temperatures are likely to be below freezing?
“One step at a time,” Taufatofua said. “Right now, I just want to go and party. I destroyed myself just to get here.”
In 2014, Bruno Banani became the first Tongan to compete at a Winter Olympics, placing 32nd in men’s luge. He was later the subject of a documentary.
Banani gained fame starting in early 2012, when the story of his name was widely publicized. Banani’s real name is Fuahea Semi, but he changed it to the name of his German clothing sponsor as a marketing ploy.