Tonga's shirtless superstar Pita Taufatofua qualifies for Winter Olympics

Rob Crilly
The Telegraph
Pita Taufatofua at the Rio opening ceremony - Reuters
Pita Taufatofua at the Rio opening ceremony - Reuters

Pita Taufatofua, the Tongan taekwondo athlete whose oiled torso caused a sensation when he carried his nation’s flag at the 2016 Rio Olympics, has qualified for the Pyeongchang Winter Games as a cross-country skier.

He told the Olympic Channel that he secured his place after a last-ditch attempt at qualification with a race in Iceland.

"This was the last day of the qualification process, this was my last race possible and we did it. We have done it," said the Australian-based athlete, wrapped up warmly against the bitter weather during a facebook live interview near the Arctic Circle.

"I had seven races and they all failed. I did my best but I fell short each time and I thought there's one race left, it's at the end of the world."

Taufatofua became a viral hit in 2016 when he strode into the Maracana stadium, bare-chested and wearing nothing but a ta’ovala – a type of skirt worn by Tongan men and women on ceremonial occasions.

<span>Pita Taufatofua qualified at a race in Iceland</span> <span>Credit: Facebook </span>
Pita Taufatofua qualified at a race in Iceland Credit: Facebook

 

Photographs of his glistening chest spread rapidly across social media. 

Taufatofua, who was born in Australia but grew up in Tonga, was the country’s first Olympic taekwondo athlete.

He soon announced that he planned to become the first male Olympic cross-country skier for a tropical Polynesian nation known for its beaches, palm trees and rugby prowess, and where snow is unknown.

Its only previous entrant at a Winter Olympics was Fuahea Semi, who competed as Bruno Banani after a sponsorship deal with a German underwear maker and finished 32nd out of 39 in the men’s luge in Sochi four years ago.

Rather like the Jamaican bobsleigh team who inspired the film Cool Runnings, Taufatofua had to employ innovative training techniques.

He used roller skis and set up a crowd-funding page to raise the cash to compete.

“I thought 'I have to give it my all. It's grave or glory'. And I gave it absolutely everything," he said.

Not everything went to plan. Last week he posted a photograph on Instagram from Istanbul airport, where he was stuck after missing a connection to Croatia for a race that could also have secured his place in the South Korean games.

"We sacrificed everything to be here. Financially I'm in the worst position ever but I'm the happiest ever," he told the Olympic Channel.

"People don't see the hard work that goes behind, they just see the shiny guy that walks with the flag."

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