The name Pita Taufatofua may not ring a bell to most people, but one quick search of his name on Google Images and you may remember him.
The two-time Olympic athlete became a viral sensation, just not for what he did competing, but rather his shirtless, oiled up body at the opening ceremonies of the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro and 2018 Winter Games in Pyeongchang.
But while Taufatofua may be known as Olympic eye-candy, he’s much more than that. He’s a UNICEF ambassador, a man trying to inspire all of Oceania and now a three-time Olympian.
That’s right, Taufatofua will be in Tokyo for this year’s Games.
After making the jump to cross-country skiing for the Winter Games, the 37-year-old will once again compete in taekwondo after qualifying last year. Since he qualified before the pandemic began, it’s been an intense year for Taufatofua to keep training, as he has been quarantining in Australia since last March.
“We haven't been able to go to any other countries to do any competition to compete against other people,” Taufatofua told USA TODAY. “There were other challenges, but there's no victory without first going through the battles.”
His goal? To be the first person to qualify for three different Olympics in three different sports, with his eyes set on the sprint kayak – he's been training for nearly two years.
However, days before the Oceania qualification tournament, Taufatofua broke a rib, which made it difficult to place. Luckily, there was another opportunity to qualify in Russia, but COVID travel restrictions resulted in him unable to make it.
But he's not giving up hope. He's bringing his paddle with him to Tokyo.
“We need an Olympic miracle,” Taufatofua said. “I'm not sure what, but what I do know is that the Olympics is all about never giving up.”
He wants to show that even people like him, who didn’t grow up with much, can achieve their Olympic challenges.
"If I go and I do three Olympic Games, maybe one of the kids who's watching is like, ‘I'm going to go and try that,’ and then they push themselves. And in pushing themselves, they better the person next to them and the person next to them," he said.
Taufatofua chose to compete in kayaking because he said what he loves most about the sport is the beauty of the sea. His respect for the environment was a main motivator in his choice of clothing at past games.
In the 2016 Games, Taufatofua wore a tapa cloth, symbolic Tongan clothing worn at formal events. In 2020, he wore ta’ovala, which is a handmade, traditional Tongan costume also worn for formal occasions and is meant to respect the land.
Taufatofua opted to wear the traditional clothing because it was only recently that Tongans were told what to wear by Olympic officials, which he felt wouldn’t properly represent his country.
“When we're walking out, we're representing a country. We're not representing 80 years of history, we have to represent hundreds and hundreds of years of history,” he said. “Maybe it's a time for everyone in the world to listen to what us native and cultural people have had to offer.”
Even with the cultural significance, Taufatofua still drives Twitter into a frenzy during the ceremonies. He said the attention doesn’t faze him at all and he finds it “amusing.”
He said he's happy to use his fame to celebrate and raise awareness of his small country.
“If you go to Tonga and if you have any problems, you'll be fed. As a tourist, someone will feed you and they'll offer you everything that they have,” he said. “That's what I believe being a Tongan and being a Polynesian is; understanding that we don't have much, but everything we have, we're willing to offer it out to the world.”
Being a UNICEF ambassador, his biggest dream is to build an Olympic Training Center in Tonga and different parts of the nearby islands with coaches and workshops that kids would have free access to.
Even if he can’t kayak in this year’s games, he’s not ruling out another opportunity to compete in another sport at the next winter or summer Games. Taufatofua hopes he will be able to compete in 2032 as well since it is expected Brisbane, Australia will be selected as the host. Even if he doesn't get any medals, he knows he still is winning something.
“I hope I get a medal. But to me, the biggest medal is knowing that there's people watching who may be inspired,” Taufatofua said.
And for the people wanting to know if he will return to his role as flag bearer, Taufatofua says he doesn’t know given the uncertainty of what the opening ceremonies will look like. His chances of returning are high given Tonga has only six athletes in this year’s Games.
However, what he does know is how proud he is that fellow taekwondo Olympian Malia Paseka will be the first female Tongan athlete to carry the flag, which he says he would be honored to carry the flag alongside her.
If he is given the chance to join alongside Paseka, he won’t say if he will show up shirtless once more.
“You know what they say, ‘just keep your eyes open.’”
Follow Jordan Mendoza on Twitter: @jord_mendoza.