The Shirtless Tongan Flag Bearer's Long, Strange Journey to the Finish Line


While one of his main goals was not to "ski into a tree", Taufatofua's focus was elsewhere.

His event, the 15-kilometer free cross-country ski, came up this past Friday, and Taufatofua ultimately placed 114th out of 119 competitors, finishing around 23 minutes behind Switzerland's Dario Cologna, who took home the gold. "Relieved. I mean, that was a long race". First of all there were his two training partners - 43-year-old German Madrazo of Mexico, who only took up the sport after reading a magazine article last year, and Chilean Yonathan Fernandez.

Taufatofua, Madrazo and several others went around the world to qualify for the Winter Games, forging tight friendships along the way in pursuit of a common goal. "We fought together, we finished together", he said.

Participating in the Winter Olympics is what counts for Tonga's flag bearer Pita Taufatofua.

Amazingly, he was at it again when the Pyeongchang Olympics opened last week despite the freezing cold, entering the stadium like a gladiator and brandishing the Tongan flag as if it were a spear. Taufatofua watched matches at a neighbour's house at a time in Tonga when there was only one television for 100 families, he said.

PYEONGCHANG, South Korea-Pita Taufatofua's mission over the past 12 months was to learn a sport from scratch and make it all the way to the Olympics.

"He's making the most of this", the commentator said.

"We're going to have a good laugh, because I know those two!" he said.

Taufatofua, 35, became an overnight sensation when he carried the Tongan flag at the 2016 Olympics in Rio - also without his shirt and while sporting an oily torso.

His sense of relief was palpable after he finished in one piece.

"I didn't fall", Taufatofua said, speaking to reporters after his race. "Let me finishing strong'".

"But I finished with the guys and that was important for me".

"Please God", the Olympic cross-country skier said to himself, "not in front of everyone".

When Madrazo finally reached the finish line, almost a half hour after the first-place finisher completed the race, his four fellow athletes helped him remove his equipment before hoisting the Olympian who had taken up the sport a year ago onto their shoulders.

"Three Olympics, three different sports", he said.