Tongan flag-bearer Pita Taufatofua becomes overnight sensation

Fourth-Place Medal
Pita Taufatofua finally qualified for the Olympics after trying since 2004. (Reuters)
Pita Taufatofua finally qualified for the Olympics after trying since 2004. (Reuters)

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The flag-bearer for Tonga walked into Maracana Stadium shirtless, smiling and oiled up.

And he became an instant sensation.

But Pita Taufatofua is much more than a pretty face and chiseled muscles, people.

He’s also a doting uncle, as his first Facebook message post-Ceremony stardom involved his niece:

The 32-year old taekwondo athlete, who was born in Australia, has worked as a model (because of course he has), but getting to the Olympics was his dream, and not an easy one to achieve.

Taufatofua told a Tongan news service that over the years he’s dealt with a litany of injuries, including six broken bones and three torn ligaments. At one point he had to spend three months in a wheelchair, and at another, he had to use crutches for a year and a half.

The first Tongan athlete to qualify for the Olympics in taekwondo, Taufatofua realized his dream earlier this year when he won the Oceania qualifying tournament in February.

“There’s nowhere else in life I can experience the same challenge that taekwondo gives me,” he told New Zealand radio in March. “Getting onto the mats; getting into the ring to fight somebody you don’t hate and whose sole purpose is to kick you in the head and your purpose is to kick them in the head.”

He has self-funded his pursuit, working full time as he trained, though he also turned to crowdfunding. His generosity.com page has garnered less than $7,000 in donations in four months.

But his star turn on Friday night has certainly gained Taufatofua attention now: over the course of writing this post, he gained over 2,500 Instagram followers. There’s more shirtless photos of him there, if you’re into that sort of thing.

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