(Reuters) – Pita Taufatofua, the bare-chested and oiled Tongan taekwondo athlete who carried his country’s flag at the 2016 Rio Olympics, has qualified for the Pyeongchang Games as a cross-country skier.
The 34-year-old, who went viral when he stepped into the limelight at the opening ceremony in Brazil, told the Olympic Channel that he had made it after a last ditch attempt in Iceland.
“I have just qualified Tonga for the Winter Olympics,” he declared in a facebook live interview from near the Arctic Circle.
“This was the last day of the qualification process, this was my last race possible and we did it. We have done it,” beamed the Australian-based athlete, wrapped up warmly against the freezing cold.
“I had seven races and they all failed. I did my best but I fell short each time and I thought there’s one race left, it’s at the end of the world.”
The Royal Tonga Ski Federation congratulated him on its facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/tongaskiteam/).
Taufatofua had announced his intention to become Tonga’s first male Olympic cross-country skier at the end of 2016 as he looked for a new challenge after exiting the Rio competition in the first round.
Snow is unknown in Tonga, a tropical Polynesian kingdom of more than 170 islands that is more famous for its international rugby prowess.
Tonga’s only previous representative at a Winter Olympics was in Sochi four years ago when Fuahea Semi, who competed as Bruno Banani after a sponsorship deal with a German underwear maker, finished 32nd out of 39 in the men’s luge event.
“I thought ‘I have to give it my all. It’s grave or glory’. And I gave it absolutely everything,” said Taufatofua, who trained on roller skis and set up a crowd-funding page to raise the cash to compete.
Last week he posted a photograph on Instagram from Istanbul airport, where he was stuck after missing a connection to Croatia for a race that could also have secured his place in South Korea.
“We sacrificed everything to be here. Financially I’m in the worst position ever but I’m the happiest ever,” he told the Olympic Channel.
“People don’t see the hard work that goes behind, they just see the shiny guy that walks with the flag.”
(Reporting by Alan Baldwin in London, editing by Toby Davis)