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Tongan Olympian who became a viral sensation for his oiled torso asks for tsunami help

A plume from the eruption of the underwater volcano Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha'apai rises over Tonga in a satellite image taken by a Japanese weather satellite. (National Institute of Information and Communications Technology /Handout via Reuters)
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Pita Taufatofua, an unofficial ambassador known for baring his oiled, buff chest during Opening Ceremonies for the Olympic Games, pleaded for help after the eruption of an underwater volcano created a tsunami that struck his homeland island nation of Tonga.

The three-time Olympian, who lives in Australia, created a GoFundMe account that has raised more than $142,000 as of Sunday morning and wrote on social media that communications with his family in Ha’apai had been cut off. Satellite images showed a plume of ash, steam and gas rising in the Pacific Ocean from the eruption Saturday evening and sending tsunami waves crashing into Tonga.

“My current knowledge is that my father (now the governor of Ha’apai) was trying to fly back to Ha’apai from Tongatapu straight after the opening of parliament. After getting to the airport his flight was canceled due to the volcanic eruption,” Taufatofua wrote on Instagram. “Last we heard he was securing our home in Veitongo right on the waters edge. Our family in Ha’apai has had all communication cut off.

Underwater Pacific volcano sends tsunami waves to Tonga, cutting off contact with outer islands

“The King has called all the reservists and armed forces to prepare for assistance. The information I’ve been sent shows the tsunami going over both Popua and the main town in Tongatapu, Nuku’alofa. No word yet from Ha’apai. I’ll be keeping you updated as I know more. What I do know is that the Tongan people are some of the strongest most resilient people to grace God’s earth. In times of great struggle is when their true spirit shines.”

Taufatofua, who has competed in the 2016 and 2020 Summer Games in taekwondo and the 2018 Winter Games in skiing, lives mostly in Australia and has been training there, he wrote on GoFundMe. He became a social media sensation for marching in the Opening Ceremonies in traditional island clothing, replete with a well-oiled torso, in summer and winter, as he became the first person to compete in three consecutive Olympics since the Winter Games were added in 1924.

“If my ancestors could sail across the Pacific Ocean for a thousand years, not knowing where the next piece of land was going to be, not knowing where their next meal was 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,” he said in South Korea in 2018.

Who knew a Tongan cross-country skier could be so engaging with his shirt on?

He competed in those Games in cross-country skiing, and for the 2020 Games, he had hoped to qualify in sprint kayak as well as taekwondo.

But he tore muscles in his rib cage, affecting his performance.

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