News Good News Tonga’s Pita Taufatofua aims to make Olympic history as he paddles his way to Tokyo 2020

Tonga’s Pita Taufatofua aims to make Olympic history as he paddles his way to Tokyo 2020

Taufatofua's first sprint kayak race was at the 2019 World Championships in Szeged, Hungary. Photo: Facebook/Pita Taufatofua
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The small Pacific nation of Tonga is not traditionally considered a sporting powerhouse, but it may just make global sporting history at the 2020 Tokyo games.

Tongan Olympian Pita Taufatofua — who first shot to fame as the country’s shirtless oil-clad flagbearer at the 2016 Rio Olympics — has launched a bid to become a sprint kayaker at next year’s games.

The 35-year-old has previously competed in taekwondo and cross-country skiing.

If he qualifies, that would make him the first athlete in the modern Olympic era to have competed at the Olympics in three separate sports.

Speaking to ABC Pacific Mornings on Friday, he acknowledged that his introduction to the sport was a relatively recent phenomenon.

“We’ve had six days of professional kayak coaching, [which] we’ve just finished going into the World Championships,” Taufatofua told the ABC.

“At the start of it I couldn’t even stay on the kayak — so we had to learn very quickly.”

The championships are being held in Szeged, Hungary, and Taufatofua’s K1 200-metre heat had a minor hitch.

At the starting blocks, Taufatofua struggled to keep his kayak facing forward in strong winds, and eventually had to make a 360-degree turn while his competitors waited for him to get back into position.

“I hit the starting block and the will in the current swung around,” Taufatofua said.

“We’d only learnt to start on a certain side, and I hadn’t learnt the skills to stabilise myself under those conditions — so I went back around and kept my composure.”

Taufatofua failed to qualify as he finished last, clocking in at 58.19 — 24.22 seconds behind heat-winner Strahinja Stefanovic of Serbia.

To compete at Tokyo’s Olympic kayak race, he must record the fastest time in his heat at the 2020 Canoe Sprint Oceania Championships in February, otherwise he may receive a place via a special ‘tripartite’ invitation.

This invitation would be decided by the International Olympic Committee, National Olympic Committees, and the International Canoeing Federation based on previous results and whether or not the invitee fits the Olympic principle of universal representation.

World championships were Taufatofua’s kayak debut

Pita Taufatofua is also trying to qualify for taekwondo at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. Photo: Facebook: Pita Taufatofua

Taufatofua said the championships were the first time he had ever faced a sprint kayaking starting block.

“We hadn’t actually trained in them — I guess it was a comedy of errors,” he said.

But while it may have appeared to be an unconventional start in the sport, it hasn’t weakened Taufatofua’s resolve to make Olympic history.

“I want to be the first to compete in three unrelated sports — the goal is still there and it’s only just started,” he said.

“I’m not worried about criticism, and I guess that gives me the freedom to try.”

When he returns to Tonga, Taufatofua will also be trying to qualify for taekwondo in the Olympics, which may see him compete in two separate Olympic sports in Tokyo if successful.

“It’s always about trying to reach that next level,” he said.