PYEONGCHANG, SOUTH KOREA—He is either emblematic of the Olympian spirit, the underdog from a pipsqueak nation that roared.
Or he’s a self-promoting, vanity-case fraud.
For sure Tongan Pita Taufatofua is the viral sensation of the Winter Games thus far, just as he’d been the hubba-hubba social media heart-throb at the Rio Summer Games two years ago.
Still buff, half-naked, his bare chest slathered in coconut oil, traditional Tongan ta’ovala mat wrapped around his goolies region, shark-tooth necklace strung about his throat.
Rio was broiling. Pyeongchang is freezing. But in Taufatofua marched at the Opening Ceremonies, flexing pecs, flip-flops on his feet, saying pshaw, what cold?, after assuring everybody he’d be dressed warmly for the occasion because no fool he. Ha. “I won’t freeze,” he said, and the aforementioned goolies must have been shriveling. “I am from Tonga. We sailed across the Pacific. This is nothing.” Taking the boast further in subsequent TV interviews: “I wasn’t cold at all. When you’re from Polynesia, the warmth comes from inside-out, not outside-in.”
The flag-bearer, again, for Tonga. Flag-bearer here because he’s the only athlete from Tonga, a hot temperature Pacific Island nation. (Where I spent New Year’s Eve 1999 on a deserted island, by the way, to be among the first humans who watched the sun rise on a new millennium. Take it from me, Tonga has a conspicuous absence of snow-capped mountains.)
Back in Rio, the Tonga NOC — National Olympic Committee, except in their case it really does sounds like a NOC-NOC joke — was leery about Taufatofua bare-bucking at the opening, concerned it might appear disrespectful. To which a righteous Taufatofua responded: “I’m marching out in what my ancestors wore for 1,000 years. Not what Western influences came in and told you to wear 50 years ago.”
Well, not hardly, at least not for Taufatofua, who was born in Brisbane to an agriculture-worker Australian father and Tongan-nurse mother. He was, however, raised in Tonga. But lives in Brisbane now, about a 30-hour drive from any snowy terrain. Crikey, first clapped his eyes on the white stuff — to be clear, we’re talking snow here — only a couple of years ago.
One might almost accuse Taufatofua of appropriating Tongan culture, with cultural chauvinism all the rage at the moment. I’ve certainly never heard him give an interview in Tongan.
Also a thing, on the 20th anniversary of the Jamaican bobsled team that captivated the world by competing at the Calgary Games, is the change-lobsters-and-dance mish-mash of ringer athletes representing countries that have no history of Winter Olympic sports. At least the Jamaicans, whose compelling story was brought to the screen as “Cool Runnings,” with John Candy portraying their eccentric coach, were the-real-thing athletes as sprinters — a breed that not unusually converts to the bobsled chute.
That too is a trend, passport athletes courted by countries with no decent prospects of their own. The German figure skating pairs team, for example, has a guy from France and a girl from Ukraine who took up Teutonic citizenship and get all misty-eyed when the German flag is run up the podium pole — Aviana Savchenko a five-time world champion, albeit with previous partners.
Nigeria’s women’s bobsled team members were all born in the U.S. And Eritrean slalom skier Shannon-Ogbni Abeda was born in Fort McMurray, Alta.
Taufatofua is more along the narrative line of Eddie the Eagle and Eric “The Eel” Moussambani, the swimmer from Equatorial Guinea who almost drowned in the pool at Sydney, posting the slowest time ever for the 100m freestyle, yet advancing out of the first heat because both of his competitors were disqualified for jumping in early.
Maybe I’m just getting to a crabby stage of life but this wacko stuff doesn’t charm anymore.
We’ve seen Tongan hype and hucksterism before. In 2014, Bruno Banani became his nation’s first-ever Winter Olympian, as a luger. Except his real-name was Fuahea Semi. He’d changed it to the name of his German underwear manufacturing sponsor as a marketing plug. Ugh.
Colour me skeptical but much of Taufatofua’s back-story has to be taken on faith because only specific details can be proven on the record — such as the fact he was good-to-go-Pyeongchang on the last-ditch qualifying weekend, at an event in Iceland, more than 9,000 miles from his archipelago quasi-home. He’d had half a dozen earlier shots at qualifying, in races from Colombia to Turkey, and failed on each occasion.
As Taufatofua tells the tale, he spent three days trying to get from Croatia to the hinterland site in Iceland, navigating through a blizzard and an avalanche that closed off roads in the over-land part of the odyssey. “I destroyed myself just to get here,” he said back then, after posting a 15k time of 15:44.72 in a race where the top qualifier clocked 3:11.72.
“People don’t see the hard work that goes into it,” he said, of his valiant bid for Games inclusion. “They just see the shiny guys that walks with the flag.”
He’s shiny because he’s well-oiled and they see it because he semi-Chippendales into the opening ceremonies.
And the only reason he qualified at all is because the International Ski Federation, trying to attract more participants, changed its rules after Sochi, allowing points accrued in roller-skiing events — which is NOT done on snow — to count towards cross-country skiing qualifications.
So Taufatofua went from training by slapping two wooden planks to his legs and running around sandhills and beaches in Australia to the roller-skiing circuit he’s described as invented by the devil.
The now-34-year-old had announced in December, 2016, that he was making the weird transition to cross-country. “I decided to find the hardest sport possible because I needed a new challenge. The goal was to do it in one year and we did it.”
Allegedly, Taufatofua owns just one pair of skis. Allegedly, Taufatofua arrived in Austria to train under a newly engaged coach in possession of just one knob of ski wax bought on e-Bay. Allegedly, as recently as six weeks before the Games launched, he had still mastered only the “basic” cross-country skiing technique. At his first World Cup freestyle ski event, he finished 153rd out of 156 competitors.
Allegedly, he’s racked up $30,000 in debt pursuing this quixotic dream, financed in part by a GoFundMe campaign. Which doesn’t make sense if, as claimed, he was inundated with modelling offers, sponsorship contracts and “movie stuff” after Rio. Virtuous athlete, he turned all the enticements down. As if. Now he’s musing aloud about adopting another sport for Tokyo in 2020. What say surfing?
But go ahead and buy in to the Taufatofua Follies, if the underdog trope strikes your fancy.
He has said, about the physical ordeal of cross-country: “Every time I ski, I feel like I die a little inside.”
Probably dying on the outside too, come Friday.
Hey, maybe he’ll strip down for a snow angel. Hot damn.