Here’s why Tonga’s bare-chested flag bearer is back at the Olympics

Pita Taufatofua led Tonga’s delegation into the Olympic Stadium during last week’s opening ceremony.
Pita Taufatofua led Tonga’s delegation into the Olympic Stadium during last week’s Opening Ceremony.

PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — Pita Taufatofua, best known as the guy from the Pacific island nation of Tonga who has marched bare-chested in traditional warrior attire in the last two Olympics Opening Ceremonies, has seen the movie “Cool Runnings.”

He loves it.

“That was one of the coolest movies I’ve ever seen,” he said Wednesday.


Taufatofua knows it is often cited as the motivation and inspiration for athletes from warm climates who try to make an Olympic dream come true at the Winter Games.

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He gets that part of his appearance at this year’s Winter Olympics, where he’ll compete in Friday’s 15-kilometer cross-country skiing race less than two years after competing in taekwondo at the Rio Summer Games in 2016 and only 12 months after taking up the sport of cross-country skiing.

He just wants people to know the full story, which he tells with a smile, with emotion, with sincerity, and with a shirt on.

“A lot of people have seen the Opening Ceremonies, they’ve seen the oil, they’ve seen the guy waving the flag, but there was a lot of struggle behind that 20 years [to get to his first Olympics],” Taufatofua said.

His Olympic dream began when, as a boy, he saw the adulation bestowed upon Paea Wolfgramm, who won a silver in boxing in 1996 to become Tonga’s first Olympic medalist. Taufatofua made it his goal to also be in an Olympics.


After Rio, he needed more. An even bigger challenge. He believed it was important that someone continue Wolfgramm’s legacy, and he believed in the need for someone to continue to be an Olympic inspiration in Tonga.

“The truth of the matter is that I’ve had a short time on snow. I won’t medal on Friday. But in four years, someone from Tonga might. In eight years someone from the Pacific might,” he said.

So Taufatofua picked the most difficult thing he could find, something way outside his comfort zone.

“It was a great idea at the time. I released to the world, ‘Oh, hey guys, I’m going to be skiing in PyeongChang in one year,’ and then afterward I found out just how hard it actually was,” he said.

He set about the process of qualifying, first connecting with German coach Thomas Jacob, and then training in Tonga and Australia. The International Ski Federation allows roller-ski race results to be included in the qualification process, and Taufatofua had some success in meeting the criteria when he started to enter races.


Then he had to prove his ability on snow, and he wasn’t so successful. But in the final race that would give him an opportunity to qualify, in late January in Iceland, he hit his mark.

“Eventually, if you throw enough punches, one’s going to hit,” he said.

So with 12 weeks of training on real snow, Taufatofua will race at the Alpensia Cross Country Centre alongside, however briefly at the start, the best cross-country skiers in the world, from such powerhouses as Norway, Russia, and Sweden. The Royal Tongan Ski Team, which also has development-level athletes in Alpine skiing and snowboarding, will be represented on the biggest of stages, possibly attracting recruits.

“We want to sustain something,” said Steve Grundman, the head of sports for the Royal Tongan Ski Team. “This is not a joke.”

Taufatofua doesn’t laugh much when he reflects on what he endured to reach the Olympic qualifying level. He readily admits distance and endurance sports are not his thing.

“This journey for me to get to the Winter Olympics has been the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do in my life,” he said.

What will make it worth it?

“To open doors for people in Tonga, for the kids who are watching in Tonga, in Polynesia, and the Pacific. To show them that there are more opportunities, that there is a Winter Olympics, that there are other sports other than rugby, and to open up doors. That was my goal,” he said.

Matt Pepin can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @mattpep15.