NUKUʻALOFA: Pita Taufatofua captured global attention as Tonga’s oiled and topless flagbearer at the Rio Olympics, but he says things didn’t get really weird until he decided to qualify for the Winter Games in Pyeongchang.
The 34-year-old found himself strapping planks of wood to his feet to recreate the rigours of cross-country skiing in the sweltering Australian heat.
He embarked on mad dashes through blizzards and across icy roads to reach qualification races on the ski-fields of Europe.
Pre-dawn training sessions became the norm as Taufatofua – a self-proclaimed beach lover – struggled in the snow, a substance he had seen only once before.
“It was all just so new to me. I had no idea there was wet snow, dry snow, cold snow, hot snow,” he told AFP.
“And you need specialised skis for each of them. I had one pair and here I was giving myself less than a year to qualify for the Winter Olympics.”
He admitted the bid to become a dual Olympian at times seemed “crazy”.
Taufatofua, Brisbane-born but fiercely proud of his Tongan heritage, was determined to reach Pyeongchang after his Summer Games experience in Rio in 2016.
He travelled to Brazil as a taekwondo fighter, losing in the first round but not before making his mark at the opening ceremony.
Bare-chested, torso dripping with oil and wearing only a traditional ta’ovala mat round his waist, Taufatofua became an online sensation as he enthusiastically waved the flag of his tiny Pacific nation.
Within hours, he racked up 45 million mentions on Twitter and the normally staid Wall Street Journal hailed “perhaps the grandest entrance by any flag bearer in recent history”.
Appearances on US talk shows followed but Taufatofua said he was already looking for his next challenge.
‘It feels like a miracle’
There was much scepticism when he announced his Winter Games bid.
A Norwegian Olympic champion said: “I think he looks better covered in oil than with skis on his feet”.
But Taufatofua said athletes from what he terms “summer countries”, including Mexico, Portugal and Colombia, rallied to support their fellow outsider.
“We would pool resources,” he said. “We’d share skis and tips on technique. We’d sleep in a hostel with three beds together and just eat pasta and tuna because that was all we could afford.
“We drove through blizzards for eight hours in Iceland trying to avoid avalanches and raced across Armenia and Georgia.
“To us, that was the Olympic creed right there, it was all about participation and people coming together.”
Training in Australia was even more difficult.
“We had to find ways to mimic skiing without having snow or skis, so I’d strap bits of wood to my feet and run on the sand,” he said.
“And there were the roller skis. They’ve got no brakes and are the worst things ever. I think the Devil invented them.”
After a number of falls and equipment failures, he appeared set to miss out before dramatically clinching a place this month at the final qualifying round in Iceland.
“It feels like a miracle. It feels like a gold medal just to qualify,” he said.
With his place assured, Taufatofua does not expect to repeat his topless Rio exploits at Pyeongchang’s opening ceremony, where temperatures will be well below freezing and hypothermia a real risk.
“My goal is just to participate,” he said. “If that leads to other people trying something that everyone else says is impossible then it will be worth it.”
Bruno Banani was Tonga’s first winter Olympian, appearing at the 2014 Games in Sochi where he finished 32nd out of 39 in the men’s luge.
But he was by no means the first cross-climate athlete.
The Jamaican bobsled team set the standard at the 1988 Calgary Olympics and were later immortalised in the film “Cool Runnings”.