Pyeongchang (South Korea) (AFP) – Topless Tongan flag-bearer Pita Taufatofua makes his Winter Olympic debut on Friday in cross-country skiing, and it’s fair to say that he’s aiming low.
“First step, finish before they turn the lights off, that’s number one. Don’t ski into a tree, that’s number two.”
The 34-year-old became a social media sensation when he appeared at the Rio 2016 Olympics opening ceremony with his shirt off, his torso glistening in oil and wearing just a traditional ta’ovala mat round his waist.
He then repeated the trick at last Friday’s opening ceremony in Pyeongchang — even as temperatures dipped well below zero — brandishing the Tongan flag like a spear and becoming an online hit all over again.
After Rio, where he lost in the first round, Taufatofua turned to cross-country skiing, even though he has only spent 12 weeks on the snow grappling with the hugely demanding discipline.
Brisbane-born but fiercely proud of his Tongan heritage, Taufatofua said Wednesday that he was not joking in hoping he can at least finish the Olympic event without suffering a major mishap — such as losing a ski.
“It sounds a bit like a joke, but I’ll tell you, when your spirit says you always finish a race and you lose a ski in the first lap of six, you question your spirit sometimes.”
Speaking at a packed press conference in Pyeongchang, Taufatofua, a social worker who helps children when not trying out new Olympic sports, added: “I hope I give my best performance and I improve on the me of yesterday.
“And maybe if I have 20 years on skis, maybe I can get a gold medal,” said the self-confessed beach bum.
His trainer, the taciturn Thomas Jacob, added: “He always tells us that he wants to finish, I think he will, it’s a very hard course.
“Maybe last, maybe not.”