May 2, 2019 / 3:30 AM / 20 days ago

Olympics: Tongan Taufatofua looks to be dual threat in Tokyo

(Reuters) - Tongan Pita Taufatofua, who set social media ablaze when he went shirtless during the opening and closing ceremonies in the past two Olympics, on Wednesday said he is aiming to qualify for the 2020 Summer Games in Tokyo in two sports.

FILE PHOTO - Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympics - Closing ceremony - Pyeongchang Olympic Stadium - Pyeongchang, South Korea - February 25, 2018 - Pita Taufatofua of Tonga during the closing ceremony. REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach

The Australia-born 35-year-old hopes to make a second appearance in taekwondo while also hunting for gold in sprint kayak, which he said he only took up recently.

“Taekwondo is my first love. You never forget your first love,” he told Reuters at a training session in New York. “We’re trying to do two sports in one Olympics.”

If successful he will be the first person in the modern era to compete in three completely different Olympic sports following his unlikely foray into cross-country skiing in Pyeongchang last year.

Taufatofua says his interest in kayaking comes from the canoeing and paddling traditions of his Tongan ancestors.

“Kayaking is a sport that is part of being a Polynesian. They traveled all throughout Polynesia hundreds of years ago and that’s more of a natural sport to me than, say, the skiing, and I just love being out on the ocean.”

The image of Taufatofua — oiled up, shirtless and wearing a traditional Tongan ta’ovala (mat) at the head of the country’s tiny delegation at Rio’s Maracana stadium in 2016 — went viral online.

Taufatofua became the first UNICEF Pacific ambassador and made an appearance at UNICEF headquarters in New York in that capacity.

In addition to his passion for the Olympics he wants to promote greater awareness of the oceans and the planet.

He said he is brimming with confidence despite his taekwondo tournament in Rio in 2016 ending quickly with a 16-1 thrashing in his first match.

He also finished 114th out of 119 in his cross-country race in Pyeongchang.

Asked to rate his confidence level, he set it at “12 out of 10.”

“One of my biggest things is self-belief,” he said.

“I have extreme self belief in myself but it’s not something that’s unique to me,” he said.

“It’s something I want to put across to people.”

Reporting by Rory Carroll in Los Angeles; Editing by Greg Stutchbury

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