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The internet-famous Tonga flag bearer is switching Olympic sports

Daniel Roberts
Senior Writer

You likely don’t recognize his name, but you know his face—and his bare chest. Pita Taufatofua, a Tongan taekwondo athlete who lives in Australia, served as his country’s flag-bearer at the Rio Olympics last summer.

After he entered the Opening Ceremony shirtless and covered in coconut oil, he went “viral,” complete with a BuzzFeed story (he “rose to prominence by being exceedingly hot,” the site wrote) and a Know Your Meme page.

Pita Taufatofua (Getty)

But he did not win a medal for Tonga.

So the athlete is aiming to return to the Olympics—not to the next Summer Games, in 2020, but to the 2018 Winter Games in Pyeongchang, competing in a completely different sport: cross-country skiing. Taufatofua does not know how to ski; he will head to Germany next month to receive lessons.

If this plan sounds ridiculous, Taufatofua says it has a serious goal: “To inspire people to get out of their comfort zone and to do things that are completely new to them. It scares me a little bit, and that’s sort of why I want to do it. I’m putting myself out there so that those people who are just on the cusp, or on the verge, of ‘Should I, shouldn’t I’ do something, or they’re scared of criticism or they’re scared of failing, I’m putting myself out there so that people can see it’s okay, life goes on, we push, we try, we fail, we get up.”

Tonga, for the uninitiated, is a series of 170 tiny Polynesian islands. The country has only been represented at the Summer Games eight times and the Winter Games once, and it has earned a single Olympic medal: a silver in boxing in 1996, won by Paea Wolfgramm.

Taufatofua, 33, wants to bring Tonga its first gold, and it doesn’t matter to him whether it’s in taekwondo or cross-country skiing. He plans to continue with both. “I’ve always been about pushing myself to the next level, whether it’s physically or mentally,” he tells Yahoo Finance.

He’s realistic about his chances. “The truth is that these guys have years and years of experience on me. But I’ve got a whole year, and I’m an athlete, so I’m hoping there will be some strong correlation… mentally, I feel pretty strong.”

It may be hard to believe Taufatofua can become skilled enough at a new sport in one year to make the Olympics for it. But there is precedent: to name one example, US Olympic hurdler Lolo Jones successfully added bobsledding, representing the US in bobsleigh at the 2014 Winter Olympics. Taufatofua’s biggest hurdle may not be athletic talent, but financial cost.

Taekwondo is “in my blood,” Taufatofua says, and it can be practiced in the sand or on a mat. Skiing, on the other hand, has far more complicated logistics—from equipment to location and access—and higher expenses. “Moving to skiing, it’s going to be a lot more expensive… that’s going to be my biggest challenge,” he says. “It’s tough financially, but hopefully I can do what I can to get assistance and to get there.”

Many fans may not realize that unlike American pro sports leagues, Olympic athletes do not tend to make much money from reaching the world’s top stage. Unless you are at the very highest level and can pick up a slew of endorsement deals like Usain Bolt, Katie Ledecky, or Michael Phelps, it isn’t automatically a lucrative accomplishment.

Each country gives bonuses (the US gives $25,000 for gold), but Taufatofua didn’t win a medal. Many athletes who don’t have corporate sponsors and didn’t win medals have to keep regular day jobs.

For Taufatofua, “What’s important to me is to stay true to who I am, and for that to be the brand. Not to create a brand, but to be who I am naturally.” The Internet already showed that it likes who he is naturally, so if he can actually qualify for Pyeongchang, expect brands to take interest.

Daniel Roberts is a writer at Yahoo Finance, covering sports business and technology. Follow him on Twitter at @readDanwrite. Sportsbook is our recurring sports business video series.

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