Tongan flag bearer, after taekwondo and skiing, hints at third sport for Tokyo 2020

When the buzz of Rio, and of overnight Olympic fame, had died down in the fall of 2016, Pita Taufatofua had never been on skis before. Heck, he had rarely, if ever, seen snow. On Friday, he’ll glide across it for 15 kilometers at the 2018 Winter Olympics.

If the unbelievable story of Tonga’s shirtless flag bearer tells us anything, it’s that … well, it’s a few things. It’s that social media is insane, silly and transformative. It’s that going shirtless on (inter)national TV is one of the better ways to launch a legend. It’s also that there is no substitute for determination, self-belief and relentless hard work.

Oh, and one more thing: that anything is possible in 2020.

That’s not just random speculation, either. Taufatofua, who spoke to a news conference of adoring reporters on Wednesday, dropped a hint that the Tokyo Summer Games two-and-a-half years from now could be on his agenda.

“Maybe water’s the next thing,” he said “Something in the water. Stay tuned.”

The possibilities are endless. If he can do cross-country skiing, why not open-water swimming? The pool events are options as well, of course. Then there’s canoeing, rowing and sailing. There’s diving. Most enticing of all is the prospect of Taufatofua recruiting an entire dang team of synchronized swimmers to represent Tonga.

It all seems far-fetched. Then again, so is the idea of a Tongan taekwondo athlete, at age 33, taking up a completely new sport and qualifying for the other Olympics. Taufatofua already did that. Getting to Tokyo in a third sport would be remarkable, but not impossible.

And when you see how much he cherishes the Olympic experience, it’s difficult to doubt his drive. He spoke eloquently Wednesday on various topics, including his shirtlessness in frigid PyeongChang temperatures last Friday.

“When I wave that flag I want to represent 1,000 years of history,” he said. “If my ancestors can sail across the oceans for 1,000 years not knowing where the next piece of land is, not knowing where their next meal is going to be … I can walk for 25 minutes through an Opening Ceremony without a shirt on.”

He has come to PyeongChang with no illusions about his chances to compete with his more experienced opponents. He knows he will not medal. His goals, he joked Wednesday, are to “finish before they turn the lights off … and don’t ski into a tree.”

Pita Taufatofua stole the show at both the 2016 and 2018 Olympic Opening Ceremonies. (Getty)

But a medal isn’t what his trip to PyeongChang is about. It’s about the process, not the results. The beauty is in the journey, which took Taufatofua across the globe and back, across Europe by car, and to Iceland. And he can explain that beauty as well as anybody can.

“If you look at the Olympic creed, it’s about struggle,” Taufatofua said. “The guy who gets a gold medal, he’s gonna burn his lungs until he collapses at the finish line. The guy who comes last is gonna burn his lungs until he collapses at the finish line. None of them are gonna give up. One may be faster than the other but they’re still gonna give everything that they have.

“But at the end of the day, there’s gonna be three athletes on that podium. There’s gonna be 80 athletes, I think 80 in that race, who don’t get a medal. There’s gonna be 80 million behind them who do cross-country skiing, or more than 80 million, who wanted to be a skier. … But it’s the struggle that’s gonna translate to all other areas of life for all of these other 80-plus million people. What is it that we do with that, that inspires those millions of kids that are watching, to push through with their challenges in life?

“That’s the Olympic spirit, and that’s what’s important for me.”

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