RIO DE JANEIRO – Pita Taufatofua finally competed in the Olympics Saturday. That’s why he is here, you know. You probably didn’t think about this. You probably don’t even recognize his name.
Taufatofua was the Tonga flag-bearer. Now do you remember? Two weeks ago, he walked into the Olympic Stadium for the Opening Ceremonies, his shirtless, muscular body lathered in coconut oil, and around the world, eyelids opened, jaws dropped, and people imagined themselves as part of a Pita sandwich. At the time, Taufatofua seemed like a silly diversion, a slice of beefcake to amuse the masses before we moved onto serious Olympians. You know, like Ryan Lochte.
But here he was, two weeks later, competing in taekwondo against Iranian medal favorite Sajjad Mardani. How did Taufatofua do? Let’s just say his Instagram account had a better Olympics than he did. He fell behind 3–0 in 21 seconds, and in his own words, “9-nil before I even started throwing kicks. And I thought: ‘What am I doing?’”
The final score was 16–1. The fight was supposed to go three rounds, but Mardani won by “point gap”—he led by more than 12 after two rounds. The term we use in America is mercy rule.
“There is more to sport than just winning,” Taufatofua said. “I say this because I lost.”
No. He says that because it is true. He knows it as well as any athlete in Rio. Taufatofua is 32. This is his first Olympics. For the past two weeks, fellow athletes asked to take selfies with him and media outlets wanted to do interviews with him, and he was happy to accommodate. But he was also proud to be here.
He had to know he would probably not win a medal. But he was the only Tongan competing in taekwondo, and he felt a sense of responsibility. Tonga is a country of 171 islands. According to the World Bank, gross income per capita was $4,260 per year in 2014. More than 20 percent of Tongans live in poverty. Taufatofua lives in Brisbane, Australia now, but he grew up in Tonga, and he wanted to do right by his country. He did not stop carrying the flag when the ceremony ended.
“I was here because it took me 20 years to get here,” he said. “People thought I walked out with a shiny body and was an overnight success. F--- that. … It was 20 years of work to walk out on that stage and be chosen as the flag bearer.”
The crowd at Carioca Arena 3 chanted “Tonga! Tonga!” Saturday, at a volume that Taufatofua never imagined hearing before he got to Brazil. That was because of the coconut oil. He wrote on his Facebook page that the oil “is an integral part of indigenous Oceanian body adornment...an expression of ancestral ties.” It doesn’t really matter if the attention was part of a master plan or happy accident.
“How the hell does the crowd know what Tonga is?” Taufatofua said. “Well, obviously, we did something right. To me, that’s what the Olympics is about. It’s about bringing people who don’t know each other and have different cultural and religious beliefs or views together as one. We’re all human beings.”
That may sound like an Olympic commercial shot by IOC executives on the take … until you hear what Taufatofua actually does for a living in Brisbane.
“I look after homeless kids,” Taufatofua said. “We have kids who are suicidal, who have anxiety or depression, and I help them with whatever problems they have. I’ve talked kids off jumping off bridges. All the problems that they have growing up that make them homeless … it’s very challenging.”
He heard from some of those homeless kids during the Olympics, along with some formerly homeless kids who are now adults. He has been working as a counselor for 12 years, so he has seen them grow up. As you can imagine, they were surprised to see their counselor become an international sensation.
Taufatofua was surprised, too. He said he has received “hundreds and hundreds of emails,” and he still hasn’t read all of them. There are some offers in there, money to be made and perhaps billboards to appear on. But he seems most pleased that people are talking about Tonga. The man we know simply as “the Tongan flag-bearer” may be the only athlete here who is happy people don’t know his name.
“I’ve had a tough life growing up, but now I’ve got a pretty OK life,” he said. “But for me the important thing is getting out to the world our message, getting Tonga out to the world.”
Interest in Tonga is way up. It may pass. But the Olympics are what you make of them; they can lead to medals, riches, or internet fame—or they can lead to something more meaningful. Taufatofua sensed this long before he competed. He came from a tiny country in Oceania and got crushed by an Iranian, an outcome that only really happens at the Olympics.
Mardani, Taufatofua’s opponent, is one of the best in the world, but he also competes for a country that has forced athletes to forfeit rather than face an Israeli. We like to say that athletes compete for their countries, but the dark reality is that some are really competing for their governments. They cannot win even if they do.
But there was this moment late in the second round Saturday when Taufatofua finally got a point, and the crowd cheered, and Mardani shook his hand. Their political beliefs, childhoods and even their countries meant nothing at that moment. It was a moment of tenderness between two men who will likely never fight again, may never meet again, and will live very different lives.
“How amazing is it that we can have wars just on the mat, and then we can walk out and be friends again?” Taufatofua said. “That’s a better message to the world. In life, we’re going to lose, we’re going to win. I’ve lost more fights than I won, and he was a better fighter. He got me at the beginning and I couldn’t catch up. I’m happy because I gave it my best.”
His Olympics were not over—as he plans to go to Sunday’s closing ceremonies.
What will he wear?
“You guys are going to keep your eyes open,” he said. “Don’t blink or you’ll miss it.”