PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — In an Olympic upset Wednesday afternoon, the shirtless, oily Tongan who has won global acclaim and marriage proposals and bawdy tweets by being shirtless and oily proved to be even better when clothed.
At that exceedingly rare event in life known loosely as the “Tongan cross-country skiing news conference,” Pita Taufatofua wore a ski jacket and maybe even another layer beneath and proved evocative, witty, a fine storyteller, self-effacing but non-farcical, ricocheting skillfully between the serious and the funny. By contrast, the body that got him the platform even came to seem kind of . . . blasé.
What an upset.
Of course, he clued in a reporter afterward on the little-known fact that when he cooks an egg, there’s time, in between placing it on the grill and finishing it, to do some push-ups.
Of course, when a reporter held up a bottle of olive oil, he stressed the superiority of coconut oil and said, “Olive oil is not good for the body. It’s only good for my salad.”
More often, this 34-year-old Instagram titan who made a sensation when he marched into the 2016 Olympic Games oily and shirtless in the Brazilian warmth as a taekwondo athlete, then made another sensation when he marched into the 2018 Olympic Games oily and shirtless in the Korean cold as a cross-country athlete, had meaningful things to say and say well.
It went even beyond this gem: “As I said before: 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 [in the frigid cold] and represent a thousand years of heritage.”
For his peak appeal, he went back just 22 years.
That’s when there happened one of the under-told stories of the 1996 Atlanta Olympics (and all Olympics): that of Paea Wolfgramm, the Tongan who won a silver medal in super heavyweight boxing, making Tonga the smallest independent nation with an Olympic medal. It’s impossible to imagine with pinpoint accuracy how that must have looked and felt on a Pacific island with still just 107,000 humans — 3,161 miles from Honolulu, 2,228 miles from Sydney and 1,243 miles even from Auckland, New Zealand — but Taufatofua gave it a good go.
He had been a rugby kid whose coaches wouldn’t let him play so that he learned both that, “I don’t give up,” and, “You need better coaches than that, because that’s not how you treat people.” He was 12 when Wolfgramm soared, when the Internet had not yet blossomed and the reports came sporadically.
“You heard stories of, ‘He’s gotten through one.’ ‘He’s gotten through two.’ ‘He’s fighting for silver,’ ” Taufatofua said. “And then the whole, the whole spirit of the country just gets uplifted. As a kid, you don’t really know, but you can feel.”
Then the Atlanta Games closed and the flights and long flights and longer flights departed, and a 12-year-old kid far, far away stood on the roadside of the route out of the Nuku’alofa airport, with seemingly all of the Tongan people.
“So what that story was, was as a 12-year-old kid, the kid who wasn’t allowed onto the rugby field, we lined the roads, when he came back from the Olympics in the United States, all the way from the airport to town,” he said. “All of the kids were on the sides of the roads, cheering. And back then we didn’t have a TV. We’d stick our head into our neighbor’s TV, and there’d be 30 people watching through the window because one person could afford a TV back then. And we lined the streets, and I had a piece of paper like this, and I had ‘P,’ and the next person next to me had ‘A,’ ‘E,’ ‘A,’ and so that when Paea went past, he could see his name. And I was waving up to him, and I thought he looked at me, and he waved at me . . . and that’s when I thought, ‘I’m going to the Olympics.’ ”
Wolfgramm came from the podium realm of the Olympics, while Taufatofua arrives in that populous other realm: the one without medal chances or pressure therein. He is a serious athlete who just learned cross-country skiing in recent months and barely qualified for PyeongChang and can joke about his goals for the 15,000 meters Friday: “Finish before they turn the lights off. That’s number one. Don’t ski into a tree. That’s number two.”
He can laugh at himself about how the federation recommended a German coach who works with kids, and when that coach, Thomas Jacob, seated next to him, states the prospectus as, “Maybe last, maybe not,” Taufatofua can fake the emotional hurt, just as he can imitate Jacob’s German accent and tell of living in Jacob’s house and raiding nocturnal chocolate from the refrigerator.
Asked whether he has developed idols, Taufatofua winds it up: “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 opportunity that you have to see them. And by the time you get to the finish line they’ve already gone home, had coffee, had dinner and are asleep, so you don’t have much time to talk to them.”
Just when you think he is playing a local Wednesday afternoon comedy hour, he pops out with this:
“If you look at the Olympic creed, it’s about struggle. The guy who gets a gold medal, he’s going to burn his lungs until he collapses at the finish line. The guy who comes last is going to burn his lungs until he collapses at the finish line. None of them are going to give up. One may be faster than the other, but they’re still going to give everything that they have. . . . But at the end of the day, there’s going to be three athletes on that podium. There’s going to be 80 athletes, I think 80 in that race, who don’t get a medal. There’s going to be 80 million behind them, who do cross-country skiing, or more than 80 million, I’m not sure, who wanted to be a skier. . . . But it’s the struggle that’s going to translate to all other areas of life for all of these other 80-plus million people. What is it that we do with that, that inspires those millions of kids that are watching, to push through with their challenges in life? That’s the Olympic spirit, and that’s what’s important for me.”
After his — pardon the expression — podium remarks, he did interview after interview: the BBC, Sky, a Swedish network, Japanese. Crazily, a Swedish journalist asked whether Taufatofua had any advice for a certain skier who is out of form and glum. Proving the journalist not so crazy, Taufatofua said, “The fact he’s here is amazing. The country should already be so proud of him.” Might such a thought even help?
On the Category 4 cyclone that struck Tonga this week, the worst in 60 years, he said, “The Tongan people and Pacific Islanders have a unique personality. They laugh at everything. They joke about everything. And they do it in a way that they can make light of anything. It could be the worst possible circumstance, and they find some way of turning it into a positive. And that’s something very unique about Polynesians, Pacific Islanders. If there’s a specific message to them, you know, we will rebuild. We’ve been rebuilding for a thousand years; we’ve had cyclones come before. What hasn’t been affected is the heart of the people.”
On a potential third sport, maybe in Tokyo 2020, he said, “Maybe water’s the next thing. Something in the water. Stay tuned.” On all the people who want to be his Valentine, he dodged and said, “I’m married to what it is that I do right now, and that’s my Valentine’s.” On his two “amigos” — Chile’s Yonathan Jesus Fernandez and Mexico’s German Madrazo, Olympic novices who joined him in his learning program — he went on and on about their shared experience. On his longtime work with homeless children, he said he had learned more from them than the inverse.
He said, “I went to Hollywood after Rio” and met with agents, who told him, “‘Your name’s too long. Change your name so people can remember it.’”
“No, I’m changing my agent,” he said he told them.
It made for 90 minutes of vivid Olympic language, as the man with the body embodied the Olympics, and as it ended, he said he “absolutely” has aimed to use the avenue of physical attraction toward more meaningful ends: “And it’s not just that I can feel better, sit on my little throne and rub oil on my body. That’s not helping anyone else. What a waste of a gift. So if I have any gifts, any talents, if I have any, I’m going to use them to benefit other people. And that makes me happy.”
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