By Philip O’Connor
PYEONGCHANG, South Korea (Reuters) – Tonga’s bare-chested flag-bearer Pita Taufatofua crossed the finish line in 114th place, almost 23 minutes after the winner in the Olympic men’s 15km freestyle race on Friday, but he still claimed a moral victory.
Facing a battery of microphones and cameras long after the medal winners had departed, the affable 34-year-old spoke of his pride at not finishing last in one of the toughest races in cross-country skiing.
“The 15 kilometer never works out so well for me, I always gas out by about the second kilometer,” he told reporters with a smile.
The elite of cross-country skiing was well-represented in the field, but there were plenty of racers from nations not normally associated with winter sports, including Brazil, Mexico and Ireland, and Taufatofua was happy to be in their company.
“I’d rather finish towards the end of the pack with all my friends than in the middle by myself. We fought together, we finished together,” the 34-year-old said.
Asked what his next challenge would be, the Tongan, who competed in the martial art of taekwondo at the Rio Games, is aiming for the Tokyo Olympics in 2020.
“Yes, that’s one of my goals. Three Olympics, three different sports – let’s see if it can be done,” he said, adding that he was tempted to try out a water sport.
Taufatofua, who was born in Australia, said he may have learned something on the freezing cross-country course.
“Maybe there’s some sort of lesson in life, pace things, don’t go too hard … I finished with all my friends, I finished with the guys we fought together with, and that was important to me,” he said after coming in third last, ahead of skiers from Colombia and Mexico.
“We’re going to have a good laugh, because I know those two!” he said.
“Everyone was at the front racing to come first, we were racing not to come last, but we’ll have a good laugh over it over dinner.”
Shivering as he spoke, Taufatofua joked about his popularity and his appearance at the Opening Ceremony oiled up and wearing a traditional grass skirt.
“I don’t know about popular, but I’m the coldest man (at the Olympics) – I think it’s because I’ve got clothes on,” he quipped.
(Reporting by Philip O’Connor, editing by Ed Osmond)