PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — It is my duty to report that in addition to being better-looking, a better athlete, and occasionally greasier than you, Pita Taufatofua, the world-famous flag bearer/cross country skier from Tonga, is a funny guy.
I mean legitimate funny, not athlete funny. (“Athlete funny” = when an athlete makes a weak, obvious joke, and everyone laughs along to keep in their good graces.) Taufatofua arrived in PyeongChang with an oily splash, repeating his move from Rio where he marched shirtless in the Opening Ceremony. He followed that up with a Wednesday media session that was one-third confessional, one-third inspirational, and one-third hysterical.
Then came Friday, and his Winter Olympics debut at the 15-kilometer (roughly 9-mile) cross country race. Taufatofua’s performance was – well, the important thing is, he didn’t finish last. (He finished third to last, with a time of 56:41.1.) Even so, he was out answering questions for 45 minutes, far longer than any of the other racers, including the medalists. This, on the heels of Taufatofua’s Summer Olympics debut, a taekwondo match in which he got obliterated 16-1. Success isn’t really the metric here; just getting to the Olympics is the goal.
Taufatofua finished almost 23 minutes behind the winner — Switzerland’s Dario Cologna, let’s give him his due — and it’s no surprise why, given how little time Taufatofua has spent on snow since he decided he’d have a go at these Winter Olympics. How little? Put it this way: You’ve got stuff in your fridge that’s been there longer than Taufatofua has been skiing. (He’s been on snow for a grand total of 12 weeks in his life.)
When asked what he could learn from the greats of cross-country skiing, Taufatofua unveiled a nice bit of schtick: “It’s really hard to have idols that you race against because you want to talk to them but they keep flying past you, so that’s the only real opportunity you have to see them. By the time you get to the finish line, they’ve already gone home, had coffee, had dinner and gone to sleep, so you don’t have much time to talk to them.”
So why bother with this quixotic quest? Watch this move: “On a personal level I wanted to qualify, and I achieved that goal, but on a bigger level, for something that was much bigger than myself, it was, ‘What can I do with this? How can I perhaps hopefully inspire someone to be at the next Olympics?’” Taufatofua said. “The truth is that I’ve had a short time on snow and I won’t medal on Friday but in four years someone from Tonga might, in eight years someone from the Pacific might, but more importantly people from the Pacific, these kids who are watching now, they’ll have access to something they never knew existed before.”
Come on. All that and he cares about kids? The rest of us — married, unmarried, whatever — we don’t stand a damn chance.
If all this gently self-deprecating, putting-others-first humility sounds familiar, well, it should: Taufatofua is marching in the famous footsteps of an American icon. Think about it: Good-looking, amiable dude. Ridiculously popular. No natural enemies. Astoundingly naturally athletic, yet unable to make a dent in the actual sports he’s attempting. Friends, the parallel is so obvious we should have pegged it in Rio:
Taufatofua is the world’s Tim Tebow.
You know Tebow’s story, right? Phenomenal, Heisman-winning college football player who — a playoff game aside — never caught on in the NFL, a guy who remains an inexplicable draw more than five years after he last took a live snap, a guy who recently made a splashy but inconsequential attempt to play baseball in the Mets’ farm system. Tebow and Taufatofua are one bottle of oil away from being twins. You know it’s true.
And like Tebow, Taufatofua is a guy who knows exactly how to burnish his own legend. He took what most would consider a stunt — walking in zero-degree wind chill without a shirt on — and managed to turn it into a noble cause:
“If my ancestors can sail across the Pacific Ocean for a thousand years, not knowing where the next piece of land is going to be, not knowing where their next meal is going to be, going to war, then I can walk for 25 minutes through an Opening Ceremony without a shirt on and represent a thousand years of heritage because that’s what they wore for a thousand years.” That’s some next-level branding right there, folks.
So what’s next for Taufatofua? You guessed it: Another run at the Olympics. Tokyo 2020’s just around the corner, and if that fails, Taufatofua will keep taking a run at it until he can’t do it any longer. “Will I go to try for the next Olympics? I might be a 90-year-old still trying for the Olympics, just to show that 90-year-olds can still try for the Olympics, it doesn’t end for me,” he said. As for the sport he’ll try next? “I’ve been inside, I have fought, had fights in a taekwondo ring, and coming out to the snow … maybe water’s the next, maybe something to do with water. Stay tuned.”
And if that fails, you can bet the Mets will give him a minor-league deal. He’d fit right in.