Tonga’s flagbearer in Rio is just one race away from making the Winter Olympics in PyeongChang – despite only stepping foot on snow for the first time in 2016. Pita Taufatofua opens up about his extraordinary life to Ben Snowball…
You may remember him as the glistening heartthrob who marched Tonga’s flag into the Maracana ahead of the Rio Olympics, but underneath the chiselled and oily exterior is the ultimate underdog meets adversity tale. A 20-year journey from poverty to PyeongChang – he hopes – via family tragedy, a near-death experience, a wheelchair, a catalogue of failure and a swarm of naysayers hoping to pop his sporting dreams.
And yet those dreams live on. Pita Taufatofua is clinging onto hope of swapping taekwondo in Brazil for cross-country skiing in South Korea – a rare Summer-Winter Games double-act few have managed, and even fewer where the sports have no visible overlap.
From the outside looking in, the 34-year-old’s chances of qualifying for February’s showcase event seem remote… at best. He first stepped foot on snow in 2016 and, due to a complete lack of funding, has managed only a few weeks of proper training on the white stuff – and even those sessions have taken place on hopelessly inadequate rented skis. Oh, and his competition is 20-30kg lighter than him on average. Easy.
Not that he cares about being written off. Three times he was within touching distance of the Summer Games of 2004, 2008 and 2012; three times his dream was postponed. He still made it. Now, thanks to the International Olympic Committee (IOC) relaxing the entry criteria, allowing road roller skiing points to count towards qualification, Taufatofua has a shot at the impossible. He’s banked four races under the required points quota – one more, albeit on snow, before January 21 and he’s off to PyeongChang.
MAKING OF A MAN
Pita Nikolas Taufatofua was born to an Australian mother, a nurse, and a Tongan father, a farmer. Eight of them crammed into a rickety one-bedroom house, complete with little electricity and no hot water. It was the least of their problems. As a kid, some of Taufatofua’s internal organs started playing up, often leaving him sapped of energy and asleep for three days at a time. Doctors feared he wouldn’t live to see his teenage years, but he confounded their expectations. His sister wasn’t as fortunate, dying of leukaemia.
At school, he was a far cry from the imposing 6’3″ figure who strutted through Rio’s opening night. A lunch diet consisting solely of a slice of bread with butter – reduced to a morsel under the Tongan sharing tradition of ‘Buckie’, meaning break – saw him carry the wiriest of physiques, so much so that he couldn’t even make a dent on the rugby team.
“I was the smallest kid in school,” he tells Eurosport. “I tried rugby for four years. I went to every single rugby training session – not once was I put in the field. I never had a coach who would give me a shot, saying I was too small, too skinny, too slow. But in my head, I never saw what they saw.
Instead, he acted as the team’s water boy, all while a new passion bubbled within. But when Paea Wolfgramm returned from the 1996 Atlanta Olympics to a hero’s welcome after winning a super heavyweight silver medal – to this day still Tonga’s only podium moment – a diminutive 12-year-old hidden amongst the parade, hands wrapped around a big letter ‘P’ sign, knew what he had to do.
“That was the moment for me,” he says. “That was when I said: ‘I need to become an Olympian. I need to be like him.’ No one believed me. But it grew in my head and I couldn’t get rid of this idea, even while my family was going through tough times.”
And so he poured his focus into taekwondo, a sport he had practised since the age of five. His first major competition arrived in 2003 – his first sniff of an Olympic spot at the South Pacific Games. His parents had no money, but somehow scraped together enough for an airfare from Tonga to Fiji. It was a wasted trip. On the eve of the event, Taufatofua was told that Tonga’s committee had chosen to field another athlete in his place. His Olympic dream was derailed before it had even begun.
“It was my first big failure. Parents being good parents were like ‘it’s OK, we’ll come to the next one’. Then I tried for the 2008 Olympics. Missed out. Tried for the 2012 Olympics. Missed out.”
Those latter two failures at least saw him compete. In 2008, with a spot in Beijing on the line, he led his final bout before suffering a torn ligament and fractured bone mid-contest. Despite his camp’s protestations, he carried on fighting, quickly seeing his lead – and Olympic aspirations – vanish. Instead of boarding a plane to China, he was plonked in a wheelchair for eight weeks. The prognosis was stark: you will never compete again. It was six months before he walked unaided. Although he returned in 2012, he again missed out at the last hurdle. He had zero funding, zero sponsors and an aging, broken body. Time was running out.
Judgement Day arrived on February 27, 2016. The Oceanic Olympic Qualification +80kg final… and it went to golden point. Next kick wins a spot in Rio.
Taufatofua cast his mind back to his job as a youth worker with homeless kids, which he used to pay his student fees aged 18. It was here that his never-say-die attitude was forged; he was about to draw upon it when he needed it most.
“They taught me how strong the human mind can be. I saw stuff no one should ever go through. I thought my situation was bad. We had some really messed up things that had happened to these kids and yet they came out on top. They came out smiling. If they could go through that, then I could qualify for this freaking Olympics. The mindset had shifted from ‘maybe’ and ‘what if I fail’ to ‘f*** it, Tonga needs this now.’ I said a little prayer. ‘I’ve asked you for 20 years. I need this now.'”
He landed the decisive blow. Rio was calling.
Sadly, his coconut oil-shimmering chest at the Opening Ceremony was the highlight of a short-lived adventure in Brazil. Taufatofua bowed out in the first round to Iran’s Sajjad Mardani, losing 16-1. But the Olympic bug had taken hold – and his next move only enhanced his viral appeal.
“It was always about the challenge. About something new and out of my comfort zone,” he says, when pressed about why cross-country skiing was his chosen pursuit. “I was very curious about the snow and snow sports. I spent my whole life never seeing snow. We don’t really have a winter season. There’s a degree difference between summer and winter. I watched the Winter Olympics and it was the only sport that at the end of every race, everybody would just die. They’d be sprinting to the line with amazing energy, and then as soon as they crossed the line they just dropped.”
He headed to snowy Los Angeles with the Olympic Channel, who got wind of his goal of competing at Summer and Winter Games. It was here that he first put on skis and realised the enormity of the task ahead: “I was flailing everywhere. It was good for TV, but I was sitting there thinking ‘what have I got myself into? This is hard. I can’t even stand on these things, let alone race.’ I thought I would be better than this.”
Four weeks of training later in Germany – the majority flailing upside down in the snow – and Taufatofua was on the startline for the World Ski Championships in Lahti, Finland, in February last year. He finished 153rd out of 156, securing 957 points – over 500 points adrift of the total he needs to get to PyeongChang. A theme that was woven throughout his life resurfaced: he was chasing an impossible dream.
He returned to the Pacific and began training on roller skis, spending his time mixing with the locals by ploughing into their cars, trees… and them. But it soon clicked. Despite having no natural aptitude for aerobic activity, he posted four credible results in Colombia on roller skis. So credible, in fact, that he was left chasing one more solid result on snow to reach South Korea.
A handful of races await between now and the January 21 qualification cut-off point. In 11 months, he’s gone from 957 points to 449 (the lower, the better) on snow. Depending on the event, that equates to about a minute in a one-hour race. A big ask, but by no means out of the question.
“People are too scared to try new things, to have big dreams and big goals. And they’re scared of failure. I don’t fear any of these things. Failing isn’t a problem. I’ve been told so many times what I can’t do. ‘You’re too old, give up. You’re too broken, give up.’ But after a while, I stopped listening. They didn’t know the future.”
Taufatofua’s big problem isn’t self-belief, but money. He’s skint and hoping to raise $30,000 (£22,000), not just to cover his globe-trotting to enter obscure races, but also to purchase a competitive set of skis. Skis that can make the difference between a bib number for PyeongChang and following the Games from a hammock. His GoFundMe page has already amassed $10,000, while he has vowed to write all his donators’ names on his race jacket, should he make PyeongChang.
“In my head, it’s 120%,” he says about his qualification. “In everyone else’s, it’s negative 10%. If they’re dragging me off the snow because I’ve passed out after nine kilometres in a race, that’s what will happen. No stone will be left unturned. I don’t want to get to January 21 and think ‘there was that little chance, and I missed it’. But if I don’t make, I’m going to be the happiest person because I know that life continues.”
This isn’t the final chapter. Whether his winter’s tale ends on January 21 or February 25, Taufatofua isn’t ready to dine out on his unusual double-act just yet. He’s already planning a return to taekwondo ahead of Tokyo 2020, when he would be 36, and may yet take up another discipline.
After 20 years of odds stacked against him – penny scraping, near-death experiences and curtain calls – Pita Taufatofua is still fighting. He hadn’t even seen snow 24 months ago; now he’s within a whisker of the Olympics’ most unlikely double. A poster boy for the #inspiration generation, who has already destroyed so many obstacles in his path.
“There’s a power in being able to hit rock bottom, then come back up,” he concludes. “If I can do it, why can’t anyone else do it? Stuff is going to happen and drag us down – we can either sit there or we can celebrate hitting the bottom and say ‘Yes! The only way is up’. Sometimes there’s a disconnect between Olympians and the average person. I want to bridge that gap. I don’t want to be remembered for trying for a medal, I want to be remembered for inspiring and encouraging people to dream big, to fail successfully, and to try again.”