One of the great fairytale stories of international sports may be too good to be true, after claims that Tongan taekwondo exponent-turned-skier Pita Taufatofua played the system to qualify for this year’s Winter Olympics.
Taufatofua won hearts around the world when he paraded shirtless and well-oiled as flagbearer for his nation at the 2016 Rio Olympics opening ceremony.
He reprised that performance at Pyeongchang in February, when he re-invented himself as a cross-country skier.
But a Stuff investigation has cast doubts over Taufatofua’s skiing credentials, claiming his qualifying performances were manufactured to circumvent the selection process.
Many of his races took place on roller-skis, which was allowed by the International Skiing Federation (FIS) to encourage increased participation by non-snow countries. Four of those races occurred in Bogota, Colombia, over the course of three days, but none were anywhere near Olympic distance.
Four other skiers from Mexico, Colombia, Portugal and Ecuador used these races to qualify for Pyeongchang. Together with Taufatofua, they filled the bottom five placings at the Olympics.
Venezuelan skier Cesar Baena, who failed to qualify for the Winter Olympics, told Stuff the process was a rort.
“What we saw with Pita, I’m sad to say, is someone who cheated the system, someone who got [around] the rules.
“This was a fake race they organised between themselves only for these guys to qualify. If you saw the results from the real competitions against the experience guys, they do not have the level.”
Another skier who did compete at Pyeongchang, who did not want to be named, insisted the ‘Bogota Five’ have dented the sport’s credibility.
“Their results are suspicious,” he told Stuff. “To me, it is all too much to ignore.
“Their participation really devalued the Olympic participation of all others who were among the last 20, but who actually qualified from real ski races.”
These claims seem to have struck a chord with the FIS, which is reviewing its qualification standards for the next Olympics.
“FIS is aware of some results inconsistencies of several cross country skiing athletes during the Pyeongchang 2018 qualification period,” it said in a statement.
“We are currently looking at how we can improve/modify the cross country qualification process for the next Olympic Winter games in Beijing in 2022.”
Newshub attempted to contact Brisbane-based Taufatofua for comment, but he did not respond.