“Today I got to walk out on the Olympic mats, the mats that I will in a few days be fighting on,” Taufatofua wrote Tuesday on Facebook, where he goes by the handle @TheRealTongaNinja. “What an honour, what a privilege to be here!”
In another Facebook post, Taufatofua explained his shiny appearance during the Games’ kickoff. “Coconut oil is an integral part of indigenous Oceanian body adornment,” he wrote. “Typically performers apply copious amounts of coconut oils on their body as a celebration of the symmetry of the human body as well as a mark of ancestral identity. … The coconut oil, vala ngatu (decorated bark-cloth), sisi faka-Haʻapai (waist girdle), and shark-teeth bracelets and necklace are all cultural emblems of deep respect for the fonua (land) and signs of paying homage to Pita Taufatofua’s Tongan ancestors.”
Taufatofua begins his Olympic quest with a round-of-16 match against Iran’s Sajjad Mardani. The Tongan is a 15 seed, which anyone who pays attention to the NCAA basketball tournament knows does not augur well for his chances — but also means that an upset is not out of the question.
It will be a tough task, though, as Mardani is one of the +80kg favorites, along with the top seed, Uzbekistan’s Dmitriy “Shock Force” Shokin. The U.S. entrant in the field, Stephen Lambdin, is seeded 13th and will have the crowd rooting against him in his round-of-16 match against Brazil’s Maicon Siqueira.
In any event, Taufatofua has already done wonders for his country’s international profile. According to the New Zealand Herald, visitors have vastly increased to Tonga’s official tourism website, which boasts a photo of the athlete on its home page, and orders of Tongan coconut oil have spiked.
Taufatofua’s Instagram page showed some of the celebrity encounters he has enjoyed since the Opening Ceremonies, including a selfie with Brazilian supermodel Adriana Lima and a visit to the Rio set of NBC’s “Today” show.
However, Taufatofua indicated on Facebook that he preferred to be known more for his competitive spirit than his now-famous look. “The truth isn’t glamorous, it isn’t shiny,” he wrote. “The truth is that I have had more injuries than I can count, that I have lost more matches than I have won, that I have gone through massive financial hardship and lost very close relationships in pursuit of the dream. What I pride myself in is not my skill in my craft, there are others who will always be better. … What I pride myself in is that I do not quit, I do not stop!”