Wellington (AFP) – Pita Taufatofua, who captured global attention as the oiled and topless Tongan flagbearer at the Rio Olympics, has gone “to the end of the world” to qualify as Tonga’s first Winter Olympian.
After a year of training on roller skis in the heat of his tropical island homeland and at his Australian base in Brisbane, Taufatofua sealed his ticket to South Korea as a cross-country skier after a handful of races on snow in the last possible qualifying round in Iceland.
“I have just qualified Tonga for the Winter Olympics, the first time in history,” a beaming Taufatofua told the Olympic Channel.
“This was the last day of the qualification process. This was the last race possible and we did it.”
The 34-year-old Taufatofua, who competed in taekwondo at the 2016 Summer Games, said he had been looking for a new challenge and the Winter Olympics became his target with cross country skiing “the hardest sport possible.”
“I’ve probably had maybe 10 weeks all up on snow because there is no snow where I’m from in Tonga so we had to use roller skis and they are the worst things ever made,” he said.
“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 and it’s at the end of the world.
“We’re in the Arctic circle, we’re in Iceland and I thought I have to give it all, it’s grave or glory all or nothing race and I gave it absolutely everything and I’m so happy.”