Pita Taufatofua, a Tongan athlete perhaps best known for his role as a shirtless, oiled-up flag bearer, will not compete in the 2022 Winter Olympics – much to the disappointment of loyal Opening Ceremony viewers who had hoped his sparkling return.
The three-time Olympian, who has competed in taekwondo and cross-country skiing, is instead focused on responding to the disaster of a powerful tsunami that hit his native island country after a nearby volcano erupted with a colossal strength. In January, he had not yet qualified to compete and opted not to try to qualify after the disaster.
“Even with the qualifying criteria, I couldn’t have gone to Beijing,” he said, because in Tonga there are “too many people who are hungry for me not to focus there. -low”.
“I’m definitely going to miss it,” Taufatofua said, but “what the Olympics are about is more than just sport, and so I think there’s a certain level of Olympic effort that we’re doing now from anyway.”
Parts of Tonga, a Pacific island nation with a population of around 100,000, were only 40 miles from the site of the blast. The country was covered in ash and many residents lost both communication and electricity. It took days before Taufatofua heard from his father and confirmed that he had been found safe and sound.
Taufatofua immediately launched a GoFundMe page for the relief efforts. “In the next few days, weeks, we will need your help,” he wrote on the page during a training camp in Australia. “Initial priority for funds will go to those most in need, infrastructure and damage to schools, hospitals etc.” The page raised nearly AU$800,000, or about $571,000.
Taufatofua, 38, made history as a rare athlete who competed in the Summer and Winter Games. Taufatofua first competed at the 2016 Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro as the first Tongan to qualify in taekwondo.
But he made headlines after appearing in the opening ceremony shirtless and dressed in traditional Tongan clothing, which he repeated in freezing temperatures at the 2018 Winter Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea, and warmer weather in Tokyo last year.
Taufatofua said he was grateful to be able to use his platform as an Olympic athlete to raise awareness for relief efforts in Tonga. “Knowing that people trust me to do my best to help the people of Tonga makes me humble,” he said.
It focuses on getting “immediate help to people” and after that “some level of rebuilding and rebuilding stronger.” His energies will then turn to Olympic pursuits, which include “going for the gold in Paris,” he said.
He added: “This is not a stoppage; it’s a half-time break.