February 14, 2018 / 9:12 AM / a year ago

Cross-country skiing: Snow still a mystery to Topless Tongan

PYEONGCHANG, South Korea (Reuters) - A murmur of disappointment rippled around the room when Pita Taufatofua walked in on Wednesday. Unfair as it may be, people have come to expect Tonga’s strapping Olympic flagbearer to walk around shirtless and shimmering all the time.

FILE PHOTO: Pyeongchang, South Korea; Pita Taufatofua leads the delegation from Tonga during the Opening Ceremony for the Pyeongchang 2018 Olympic Winter Games at Pyeongchang Olympic Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

The Tongan stole the show at the Pyeongchang Games opening ceremony last Friday as he did in Rio two years ago, striding into the stadium at the head of his country’s tiny delegation, oiled up and wearing just a traditional grass skirt.

While the crowd rose to greet him, marveling at his fortitude in the face of South Korea’s bone-chilling temperatures, Taufatofua said representing his people took precedence over personal comfort.

“When I wave that flag I want to represent 1,000 years of history,” he told a news conference.

“If my ancestors can sail across the oceans for 1,000 years not knowing where the next piece of land is, not knowing where their next meal is going to be ... I can walk for 25 minutes through an opening ceremony without a shirt on.”

Born in Australia, Taufatofua competed in taekwondo at the Rio Games before turning his attention to the grueling sport of cross-country skiing for Pyeongchang.

There was no shortage of challenges on his journey. Equipment and funds were in short supply.

As was snow.

“I don’t know much about snow, but I’m learning,” he added.

“I’ve had 12 weeks of snow in my whole life. So on Friday I’ll have close to 13 weeks on snow if the race takes me a week to finish. Hopefully not.”

Taufatofua trained on roller-skies at home and in Australia to make up for the lack of snow. He readily admits his technique is far from flawless but there will be few athletes in Pyeongchang who can match his resilience and determination.

Growing up the smallest, slowest kid in his rugby team, Taufatofua said he was never given the chance to show what he could do, but that he never missed a training session in four years.

“I don’t give up,” he said.

After taking up the hardest sport he could think of, and learning as an absolute beginner without the proper equipment, the switch to real snow took some getting used to but getting advice from experienced cross-country skiers was difficult.

“It’s hard to talk to them when they’re flying past you,” he said.

Taufatofua is under no illusions — there is no possibility of a podium place in Pyeongchang, he says. But the opportunity to inspire youngsters back in Tonga, in Polynesia, in the Pacific Islands, is what drives him.

“The truth of the matter is I’ve had a short time on snow, I won’t medal,” he said. “But in four years someone from Tonga might. In eight years someone from the Pacific might.”

His Olympic journey may well continue to a third Olympics in Tokyo in 2020 in a completely different sport.

“Maybe water is the next thing,” he said. “Stay tuned.”

Editing by Ed Osmond

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