Tonga's famous shirtless flag-bearer qualifies for Winter Olympics as skier

Henry Bushnell
Pita Taufatofua stole the show at the 2016 Olympic Opening Ceremony in Brazil. (Getty)
Pita Taufatofua stole the show at the 2016 Olympic Opening Ceremony in Brazil. (Getty)

Remember Pita Taufatofua? Your favorite shirtless Tongan Olympian of all time?

Well, he’s an Olympian … again!

Taufatofua, who qualified for the 2016 Summer Olympics in taekwondo, and whose bare, oiled-up torso stole the show at the Opening Ceremony, has now qualified for the Winter Olympics as a cross-country skier.

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On the final weekend of qualifying, in Iceland – more than 9,000 miles away from his native country – Taufatofua did just enough to clinch a berth in PyeongChang. He spoke to the Olympic Channel after the decisive race:

If you’re just catching up, Taufatofua announced in December 2016 that he was transitioning from taekwondo to skiing to launch a bid for an Olympic medal.

“That looks hard,” he told the Wall Street Journal of cross-country skiing. “[So] I’m going to do that. That looks impossible – that’s where I need to be. Cross-country looks like there’s no way I can do it in a year – therefore I have to do it in a year.”

Earlier this month, Taufatofua was one race away from securing his spot at the 2018 Winter Games. But after an ordeal that included late-night taxi rides across Europe and a narrowly missed flight, it appeared he would come up just short. “I’m the brokest I’ve been in my life,” he said at the time.

However, he found his way to Isafjordur, in northwest Iceland …

And with one last shot at qualification, he came through. “This was my last race possible, and we did it,” he confirmed in an interview with the Olympic Channel. “This is a miracle.”

Indeed it is a miracle. Taufatofua finished 153rd out of 156 in his first race, at the 2017 World Championships. But he kept improving, and got in just under the wire.

“People don’t see the hard work that goes behind,” he said, referencing the qualifying journey, which took him to places like Armenia and Colombia. “They just see the shiny guy that walks with the flag.”

Cross-country skiing competition begins on Saturday, Feb. 10 in PyeongChang, the same day as the Opening Ceremony. There are separate cross-country events – all of them medal events – on 10 different days throughout the Games. It’s unclear when exactly Taufatofua will race.

It’s also unclear what his outfit will be at the Opening Ceremony in South Korea. He wouldn’t divulge any details on Saturday. But we can probably put forward a pretty good guess.