Pita Taufatofua: ‘Topless Tongan’ targets sprint canoeing at Tokyo 2020

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My biggest challenge yet - 'Topless Tongan' targets third Olympic sport

If you don't remember his name, then you may recall his oiled-up torso…

Tradition is important to Pita Taufatofua, but at the Rio 2016 opening ceremony he was in no mood to follow protocol after a 20-year-fight to reach the Olympics.

With thoughts of his humble upbringing, family sacrifices and the near-misses in mind, he shed his official suit - despite pleas not to - and strode out in his native 'Tongan warrior' attire, complete with his nation's flag.

Minutes later he was trending across the world and the taekwondo fighter became an overnight celebrity.

Tonga's Pita Taufatofua
Taufatofua was flagbearer for Tonga in both the 2016 Olympics and 2018 Winter Olympics

Less than two years on he was back in the headlines after becoming Tonga's first-ever Winter Olympic skier.

And now he is seeking to become the first man this century to compete in three Olympic sports - by taking up canoeing.

"I want to be a sprint kayaker," he told BBC Sport.

"It's a sport that's close to my heart as it's what my ancestors did for thousands of years when they colonised the Polynesian islands."

In a wide-ranging interview, Taufatofua explains how he is using his fame to change perceptions in his homeland and reveals his mission to secure Tonga's first-ever Olympic gold medal at Tokyo 2020.

'Home kept me humble - even when meeting Harry and Meghan'

"I just wanted to represent my country's culture and heritage," the 35-year-old Tongan said. "I had no idea it would have that impact."

Despite the numerous TV chat-show appearances and celebrity social media endorsements, which followed his 'internet-breaking' appearance at Rio 2016, Taufatofua is refusing to become caught up in the hype.

This is a man who grew up with his parents and six siblings in a one-bedroom house, which was subsequently blown away by a tropical storm.

"Life then was tough, we had no running water and very little space," he recalled. "I remember that my idea of being rich was when I would have enough money to choose what I wanted to eat."

It is a far cry from the life he now enjoys - which is split between his base in Brisbane, international events and greeting royals in his homeland.

Last year he met the Duke and Duchess of Sussex - Prince Harry and wife Meghan - in Tonga during their Pacific Islands tour, but there was to be no special treatment from his family before the event.

"I told my father I'd been invited and he just said 'Oh that's nice - let's go to the bush because we've work to do'.

"I said 'But I've got to get ready!' and he insisted 'No, not until the cows have had water'."

'There is so much untapped potential in Tonga'

In his role as a Unicef ambassador Taufatofua, who has a degree in engineering, has worked with homelessness charities and young leaders programmes in his homeland while also raising awareness about the impacts of global warming.

Tonga's Pita Taufatofua
Taufatofua began taekwondo at the age of five

According to the 2018 World Risk Index, Tonga is the second most likely nation to be hit by a natural disaster - after fellow Pacific island Vanuatu.

"When I was a child we'd have a major storm maybe once every six to 10 years, now we have one or two a year," he says.

"I want to highlight the problems we face but also inspire people here to speak up and make them believe they can make real change because there's so much untapped potential in this part of the world."

Can anyone buy me a canoe?

The power of positivity is something he emphasises in a new book he is launching to raise funds for his Olympic bid.

Taufatofua utilised crowd-funding campaigns before the last two Olympics, but he is reluctant to ask the public for further help and is seeking major backers to cover the estimated £120,000 he needs for the next 12-15 months.

Tonga's Pita Taufatofua
Taufatofua wants to win Tonga's first-ever Olympic gold medal at Tokyo 2020 as a sprint kayaker

"I'm currently training with a recreational kayak which is a completely different size and weight to the professional ones you'll see at the Olympics," he says.

"A new kayak could be anything up to $10,000 (£7,700), but I'm also looking for a partner or two that wants to be part of this journey and believes in what we're doing."

Canoeing his 'biggest challenge yet'

Before his Olympic debut in 2016 Taufatofua had endured countless broken bones, torn ligaments and several months in a wheelchair, which contributed to two failed attempts at reaching previous Games.

Buoyed by achieving his lifetime dream he then qualified as a cross country skier for last year's Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, where he finished 114th out of 119 competitors.

However, the new challenge is arguably his toughest to date with only 12 places available in the K1 200m event he is targeting Tokyo 2020 qualification.

"In Tonga we work with what we have and I believe we can achieve this," he said.

Only one Tongan athlete has ever stood on the Olympic podium, boxer Paea Wolfgramm, who claimed silver at the 1996 Atlanta Games - but Taufatofua hopes to emulate that.

"I've always trained to win a medal, but in the past it's really been about becoming an Olympian," he said. "Now I want to row my way to Olympic gold and carry the spirit of my people with me."

The World Canoe Sprint Championships in Szeged, Hungary in August will provide Taufatofua with his first chance to qualify for the Games, if he can secure a top-five finish.

Realistically though he will be focusing on the Oceania continental qualifier in February 2020, but he has not abandoned thoughts of returning to the taekwondo mat come the Olympics as well.

"Two different sports at one Olympics, now that would be something wouldn't it?"

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