Big screen beckons for Tonga's toned Olympic flagbearer

·3 min read

As he counts down the days to his third straight Olympics, Tonga's famously chiseled flagbearer Pita Taufatofua is also contemplating offers for a career in movies and documentaries.

Taufatofua captured world attention when he appeared at the opening ceremony of the 2016 Rio Olympics topless and glistening with coconut oil, while enthusiastically waving the banner of his tiny Pacific nation.

He racked up 45 million Twitter mentions within hours, then went on to repeat his chest-bearing feats at the opening of the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Games, despite freezing conditions.

The 37-year-old is unsure whether Covid-19 restrictions will prevent him from performing his trademark routine in Tokyo but says he has no qualms about participating in the event during a global pandemic.

"I'm just happy to be going," Taufatofua told AFP on a video call.

"I know there hasn't been much hope in the last 18 months and there's going to be a lot of challenges in Tokyo that will make it a different type of Games.

"But I believe it's going to bring people together and be one of the greatest Games of all time."

The taekwondo athlete says it's been a "crazy" ride since becoming an online sensation in 2016 with his opening-ceremony stunt.

Two years later, he qualified as a cross-country skier in Pyeongchang, even though he had only seen snow once before commencing training.

The Brisbane-based athlete strapped planks of wood to his feet to simulate skiing in the sweltering Australian heat, and only qualified after a mad dash along avalanche-hit roads in Iceland to make his final event.

- Kayak bid sinks -

His original plan for Tokyo was to kayak in the K1 200m sprint, making him the first Olympian to compete in three different Games in three different sports.

But there were teething problems for the novice paddler, including troublesome winds pushing his kayak around so that he was facing the wrong way at the starting line on his competitive debut.

Pandemic border closures blocked the avenues to last-minute kayaking qualification, but his taekwondo skills were enough to earn him a place in Tokyo.

Despite his kayaking effort falling flat, Taufatofua said he had no regrets.

"I have to push through even if it means embarrassment," he said.

"If it means facing the wrong way in a race, coming last in multiple races that's OK, just to show people they can have a go."

Such underdog exploits have, perhaps inevitably, caught the attention of Hollywood and Taufatofua said there had been no shortage of big-screen offers.

He said an acting role in a US-backed feature was upcoming, but could not release details.

"One thing about being the Tongan flagbearer and the person that everyone associated with Polynesia is that any time a role comes up that needs the Pacific islander, or that warrior with brown skin, they call me -- so it's in that area," he said.

Most interest has come from documentary-makers but Taufatofua said he was yet to find the right filmmaker to record his story.

A "multi-million dollar" offer was made last year but he was concerned the documentary would have over-emphasised a Cool Runnings-style narrative that did not ring true.

"The conditions included that I give up the rights on my story but if I'm going be portrayed in a documentary I want it to be authentic," he said.

"The story's pretty cool as it is anyway... I'd rather be farming on the land with my father with nothing than not have the rights to my story, money doesn't mean that much to me."

While pursuing his silver screen ambitions, Taufatofua joked that he had not yet given up chasing kayaking glory in Tokyo.

"If there's a spare lane there and an old rubber duckie for me to get on and paddle, I'll be on it," he said.

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