In these desperate times, at least we have the shirtless Tongan flag-bearer

Pita Taufatofua and his oiled chest came back for the Winter Olympics opening ceremony, and not a moment too soon

Published February 9, 2018 11:28AM (EST)

Flag bearer Pita Taufatofua of Tonga leads the team during the Opening Ceremony of the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympic Games (Getty/Lars Baron)
Flag bearer Pita Taufatofua of Tonga leads the team during the Opening Ceremony of the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympic Games (Getty/Lars Baron)

The world is ablaze. Deadly conflict, refugee crises, environmental disaster, sexism, racism and the melting U.S. government all grip the headlines. Even the Winter Olympic Games in PyeongChang, South Korea, which began in earnest Thursday, are not free from worry as a nuclear-capable autocrat rattles his saber only just north of the festivities' host country.

And, yet, at least we have this.

Friday night — that is, early Friday morning for those in the Western hemisphere — athlete Pita Taufatofua, who became famous when he bore Tonga's flag shirtless during the opening ceremonies of the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, again covered his exceptional upper body in glistening oil to represent his nation in the opening ceremony of this year's edition of the winter games.

The Australian born Taufatofua, who competed in the 2016 games in taekwondo, again wrapped himself in only the traditional ta'ovala mat, despite early doubts that the freezing cold of PyeongChang might prevent him from going shirtless (at the rehearsals for the opening ceremony last Sunday, temperatures were in the single digits). Brisk as it was Friday, Taufatofua persisted.

For the 2018 games, Taufatofua has recast himself as a cross-country skier, after a long, difficult program of acclimatizing to the sport on an international competition level — and thank goodness for that. Much as he was the first person to compete in taekwondo for Tonga, he is too the first person to compete in his newly found sport for the Polynesian island nation.

More impressive, Taufatofua had only three months of working on snow before he qualified for the games (he managed to get more time in on roller skies than on traditional ones during training). Given that, he is realistic about his chances at medaling this year.

"The dream this year was to qualify and to qualify in the year, that was the impossible dream -- I guess I'm going in without pressure," he told CNN. "I've come in as the last seed so I think I'm the last ranked person there — so if I get a gold medal, I'll be happy; If I come last, I'll be happy. I made it to the Olympics and I got Tonga to the Olympics." Good attitude.

Friday night, the Bermudian delegation tried to give Taufatofua a cold-bearing run for his money when they marched in, yes, Bermuda shorts. But, again, the night was Taufatofua's and the joy was the world's. Yes, things are dire — but at least for one shining moment, the globe could rally around this.


By Gabriel Bell

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