RIO DE JANEIRO — Halfway through a sparring session with his coach Sunday afternoon, the heartthrob of the Olympics put his best asset in jeopardy.
Pita Taufatofua leaned in too far throwing a punch and left his face vulnerable to counter attack.
“You have to keep that safe,” a friend joked with him. “It’s your moneymaker now.”
Taufatofua’s good looks have indeed attracted plenty of interest since his bare-chested, oil-slathered entrance at the Opening Ceremony on Friday night. In the past 48 hours, the 32-year-old Tongan taekwondo fighter has received everything from job offers, to suggestive photos, to marriage proposals.
Modeling agencies and movie producers have offered him work. Dozens of famous athletes at the Olympic Village have asked to snap photos with him. More than 75,000 people have followed him on Instagram. So many friends and family have called or texted that he had to shut his phone off the past two nights in order to get some sleep.
“I got onto the bus Friday night, turned on my phone and I was shocked,” Taufatofua told Yahoo Sports. “Someone told me, ‘You’ve done more for Tongan tourism in one night than the past 20 years of advertisement.’ ”
The inspiration for Taufatofua’s outfit was his desire to bring attention to Tonga and to honor his father. Everything Taufatofua wore came from his island home of Ha’apai, from his traditional tupenu wrap, to his shark tooth necklace, to the thick layer of coconut oil coating his chiseled torso.
The shimmering entrance launched dozens of memes, many of which drew a chuckle from Taufatofua. One of his favorites featured a shirtless picture of him paired with the message, “This is why they give out 42 condoms to every Olympic athlete.” Another had Batman slapping Robin and telling him, “You’re not running off to Tonga to find the flag bearer.”
“The majority have been pretty funny, but there are a few Snapchat things I probably shouldn’t have opened,” Taufatofua said. “I’ve learned that there are a few too many flag bearers out there.”
All the attention is surreal for a guy who has lived humbly his entire life and toiled in anonymity for much of his taekwondo career.
Taufatofua and his five siblings seldom had three meals worth of food to eat while growing up in a small village in Ha’apai. He’d earn 20 cents a week working at a farm and that served as lunch money until he got paid again. Most days Taufatofua subsisted on bread and butter unless he stumbled across a mango tree to climb.
“Every third Friday, I’d save up enough to buy an egg burger,” he said. “That was the day I looked forward to for three weeks.”
While Taufatofua’s father didn’t earn much working at a farm, he invested the money he did make in education. He has a PhD and all of his kids have graduated from college including Taufatofua, who has an engineering degree.
That degree has largely gone to waste in part because of Taufatofua’s lifelong passion for taekwondo. Taufatofua has dreamed of representing Tonga at the Olympics for two decades, a labor of love rife with adversity and obstacles.
He advanced to the 2004 Oceania Olympic Qualification Tournament, but he did not attend because he could not afford the flight to Thailand. He made it back again four years later, but suffered a final-round ankle injury so gruesome that it left him in a wheelchair for six months. He overcame a torn ligament in his knee to make the final again in 2012, only to lose on a kick to the head and fall one victory shy of the Olympics once more.
“The hardest one for me was 2008,” Taufatofua said. “I had worked so hard and I was winning until I fractured my foot. I had a tennis ball-sized lump on my foot, and I wanted it so bad I kept kicking him until the lump exploded. It wasn’t pretty. That was hard for me to take.”
Driven by the persistence instilled in him by his family, Taufatofua returned to the qualification tournament a fourth time in February in hopes of becoming Tonga’s first Olympian in taekwondo. This time he achieved his goal, edging New Zealand’s Dafydd Sanders by a single point in the finals.
“When I qualified, I lost it,” Taufatofua said. “It took me my whole life to get here, so I appreciate it so much more because of how long it took.”
Some of Taufatofua’s friends have told him he’s already won the Olympics because of his newfound fame. He doesn’t see it that way. Even though he’s ranked only 87th in the world and is unlikely to advance beyond the first round, he’s throwing all his energy into trying to pull off a few surprises or two.
That’s why Taufatofua’s body was glistening because of a different substance Sunday as he delivered a series of kicks and punches to his coach’s heavily padded chest.
“It’s not oil, now,” he said with a chuckle. “It’s sweat.”