Pita Taufatofua — the topless and oiled Tongan taekwondo fighter who caused a social media storm at the Olympic Games — is turning his attention to qualifying for the Winter Olympics.
His decision to wear traditional Tongan dress and cover himself in coconut oil at the opening ceremony in Rio de Janeiro stole the show and provided one of the most talked-about moments of the 2016 Games.
Never mind that he lost his only fight in his Olympic debut — Taufatofua was featured in Sports Illustrated, made the list of Who magazine’s sexiest people, and his Instagram profile went from virtually nil to nearly 150,000 followers. A flurry of invites to appear on chat shows across the globe followed.
Now he wants to be a cross-country skier at the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics — despite the fact that he has barely set foot on skis before.
“I’ve probably spent about four minutes of my life on skis for that video,” he says of the clip on the Olympic Channel announcing his ambition.
“I wanted to do something sports orientated but completely out of my comfort zone. Being from Tonga, I’m used to sand. I saw the snow for the first time two years ago and I fell in love with it.
“I want to push myself and show them that regardless of the criticisms anything is possible. Hopefully it inspires people in their own individual challenges.”
The new ‘Cool Runnings’?
Taufatofua has been snowboarding — once — on a week’s holiday with his brother, but that is where his wintry forays end.
And the clock is ticking. His first skiing lesson is booked for January 8, and the opening ceremony for the Nordic Ski World Championships in Finland is 45 days later.
But in conversation via Skype from his home in Brisbane, Australia, there doesn’t appear to be any doubt in his mind.
Drawing parallels with “Cool Runnings” — the Jamaican bobsleigh team that qualified for the 1988 Winter Olympics — could there be a film about his exploits?
“Maybe one day,” he replies.
The idea of a Tongan Cool Runnings has led to a mixed response. Former world and double Olympic cross-country champion Petter Northug wrote on Facebook: “Do you remember this guy? I think he looks better covered in oil than with skis on his feet.”
The reaction of those closest to him has been a lot different.
“My friends and family think I’m crazy but they see past the crazy because they know that regardless of how crazy the idea is, I’ll stick with it,” the 33-year-old says.
“Everyone sees the oil at the Rio opening ceremony as the first moment but it took me 20 years to get to that point. As a child, I had a vision to get there and I did it. OK, I need to be a bit nuts to do this but I’m stubborn and I like a challenge.”
Taufatofua is still amused by the reaction to his appearance at Rio, but for him it was simply a nod to his ancestors of 200 years ago — members of the Tongan canoe fleet who battled tribes from neighboring Fiji and Samoa, covered in traditional oil.
“Within a few minutes I had athletes telling me I was trending in countries around the world. That was pretty cool. And when I got my phone back from my coach I had to turn off the notifications. It went crazy,” he recalls.
Drawn to cool places
It led to many post-Games offers and, as he puts it, “meeting cool people, doing cool things and going to cool places.”
And it is the cool places to which he is now drawn.
To focus on his Winter Olympics ambitions, he has handed in his notice for his day job as a youth worker.
“For 15 years, I’ve done that, working with homeless kids, but it feels like this time I can do something bigger,” he says.
He has also agreed to fill a humanitarian role with the World Taekwondo Federation, helping to spread the sport in refugee camps across the world.
‘I guess I’ll pass out’
To qualify for Pyeongchang, there is a tough points qualification criteria. But he says he is undaunted despite being 10-15 kilograms (22-33 pounds) heavier than his rivals. He is also more used to short, sharp bursts in taekwondo rather than the endurance required for cross-country skiing.
“I didn’t really watch the clips of the races until after I’d decided to do this,” he says. “And you see them all passing out at the end. I guess I’ll pass out too … it’s a really hard sport.”
His other big obstacle is money. He has set up a crowd funding page — as he did for Rio — to help raise money to finance the dream, the target being $80,000.
In conversation, he makes the seemingly impossible seem perfectly plausible. Having suffered six broken bones, three torn ligaments, three months in a wheelchair and 18 months on crutches in his quest for an Olympic spot in taekwondo, he hopes this challenge will be less brutal.
And should he go to South Korea in 2018, will he go bare-chested for a repeat of Rio at the opening ceremony? Inevitably.