More than a shirtless flag bearer: How this Tongan athlete has made Olympic history

Internet and social media sensation Pita Taufatofua has done something no other Olympic athlete has accomplished

Pita Taufatofua, of Tonga, walks during the opening ceremony in the Olympic Stadium at the 2020 Summer Olympics, Friday, July 23, 2021, in Tokyo, Japan. (AP Photo/Petr David Josek) (Petr David Josek, Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

It will nearly impossible for Pita Taufatofua to outlast his original claim to fame as “the shirtless flag bearer,” which made him a legend on social media.

But what Taufatofua accomplished at this year’s Tokyo Olympics has unprecedented meaning from an athletic perspective.

The athlete from Tonga is the first athlete in the history of the Olympics to compete in three straight Games when it comes to both the Summer and Winter Olympics.

There are obviously athletes who have competed in three straight Summer or Winter Olympics, but none of them did three straight Games as a combination of the two seasons.

Taufatofua competed in the 2016 Rio Games in taekwondo, and then improbably became Tonga’s first-ever athlete in the Winter Olympics when he competed as a cross-country skier at the 2018 Pyeongchang Games.

Taufatofua is back at this year’s Olympics, competing once again in taekwondo.

It’s quite an impressive feat to become the first athlete to have that distinction, and he tweeted how someday he might share the struggle it took to compete in three straight Olympics.

Of course, even with that impressive athletic feat, many will solely remember him as the oiled, shirtless flag bearer for Tonga who blew up social media and the internet with his appearances at the last three opening ceremonies.

Women around the world have swooned at the sight of Taufatofua entering the stadium carrying his country’s flag, shirtless and covered in coconut oil.

Taufatofua told The Guardian in 2019 that it’s simply traditional attire in his native land, and he was just trying to pay tribute to 1,000 years of history in Tonga.

Flag bearer Pita Taufatofua of Tonga leads the team during the Opening Ceremony of the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympic Games at PyeongChang Olympic Stadium on Feb. 9, 2018 in South Korea. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

As a result, he went from being relatively unknown to a celebrity, making appearances on national TV shows in the United States and having to get educated quickly regarding what it means to have a publicist and an agent, according to the article in The Guardian.

Now 37 years old, Taufatofua, the son of an Australian mother and Tongan father, was raised in Australia and earned an engineering degree from the University of Queensland. He worked with homeless children in Brisbane for 15 years.

His path to Olympic fame was anything but easy. In fact, it was downright excruciating when you consider all he overcame:

  • Taufatofua grew up with his parents and six siblings in a one-bedroom house. “They had no money because they paid for us to have the best education. Between us, there are eight degrees and two masters,” he told The Guardian.
  • In his pursuit of becoming an Olympian, Taufatofua said he had six broken bones, three torn ligaments, was on crutches for 1 1/2 years, and spent three months in a wheelchair over various injuries.
  • Short on money, Taufatofua trained for the 2012 Summer Olympics in London with taekwondo masters in South Korea, sleeping underneath a desk in a preschool room for six months.
  • During an Olympic qualifier for Rio, Taufatofua was tied against an athlete from New Zealand who consistently beat him. The match went into overtime, where the first to get a point won and qualified for the Olympics. Taufatofua pulled the match out. “That was my moment,” he said to The Guardian. “It was the most emotional time. Rio, oil, that wasn’t my moment. That was the reward for all the hard work.”
  • Broke before the Rio Games, Taufatofua had to hold fundraisers and train in the garage of a rented house in the preceding months before the start of the Olympics.
  • Following the Rio Games, Taufatofua decided out of the blue to try and qualify for the Winter Olympics as a cross-country skier, even though he spent his whole life in a warm-weather climate. He watched YouTube videos and trained on roller skis in a local park. When he raced on actual snow, he traveled the globe trying to qualify, but finished last in four out of nine races and racked up $40,000 in credit card debt.
  • When he qualified for the Pyeongchang Games, Taufatofua did so by going to a qualifier in Iceland on a fjord in the Arctic Circle. A snowstorm turned a 10-hour drive into a three-day voyage, but he got there and did enough at the race to qualify for the Olympics.

Back in the Summer Games in the taekwondo competition, Taufatofua lost his first match in Tokyo to Vladislav Larin of the Russian Olympic Committee.

Taofatofua will likely never win an Olympic medal, but overcoming his struggles has landed him fame, a book deal, film and TV offers.

Taufatofua has also given a speech at the United Nations general assembly.

While he’ll likely always be known for his shirtless and oil-covered appearances at the opening ceremonies, his perseverance and Olympic history he’s made this week proves Taufatofua’s greatest claim to fame should be more than just “the shirtless flag bearer.”

About the Author:

Keith is a member of Graham Media Group's Digital Content Team, which produces content for all the company's news websites.