Taufatofua ditches bare-chested approach for Winter Olympics opening ceremony

Cross-country skiing is a gruelling discipline
Cross-country skiing is a gruelling discipline

Tonga’s Pita Taufatofua has no plans to repeat his bare-chested flag bearing at Friday’s Pyeongchang Winter Olympics opening ceremony.

The 34-year-old has swapped taekwondo for cross-country skiing since the Rio Olympics, where his appearance in traditional dress, a ta’ovala, and lathered in oil at the opening ceremony attracted numerous admirers.

“I want to still be alive for my race. It’s going to be freezing, so I will be keeping nice and warm,” said Taufatofua, the first Tongan to qualify for both summer and Winter Olympics and the Pacific island’s only representative here.

“There was movie stuff, modelling stuff, different sponsorship contracts. I didn’t realise how big a thing it would be for people, but my passion is pushing myself.”

Taufatofua has certainly done that since taking up his new discipline. He first skied in January 2017, having previously seen snow once in his life.

“After Rio I needed a new challenge,” he said. “Could I do a new sport, the hardest I could think of, in a year?

“Every time I ski I feel like I die a little inside. The burn starts and then you hold the burn for an hour or more.

“I still haven’t had a race where I felt completely happy, in terms of no pain.”

Taufatofua qualified for Pyeongchang at the seventh, and final, attempt.

He travelled to Isafjordur, Iceland, for a make-or-break race in mid-January and finished sixth.

“The closest I had got was within 30 points. This time I blew it out of the water, the best snow race I have ever done,” he said.

There was one small problem. Having crowdfunded to support his target, Taufatofua had only been able to afford a one-way ticket.

He added: “Our tickets to Iceland were one-ways because that was all we could afford. I had to call my brother and ask him to get me a ticket.”

Taufatofua, who ranked 11th in the +80kg in Rio, also plans to target a third Olympics in two years’ time.

“I feel I have got unfinished business with taekwondo,” he said.

“The goal at Rio was to win a medal, so Tokyo 2020 is on my radar.

“But who knows? You might see me in something else. I love all sports, it could be anything.”

Copyright (c) Press Association Ltd. 2017, All Rights Reserved.