Five-ring Circus

Olympics Jerk Watch: the Shirtless Tongan

Tonga's flagbearer Pita Taufatofua leads his country's delegation during the opening ceremony of the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympic Games at the Pyeongchang Stadium on February 9, 2018.
Tonga’s flagbearer Pita Taufatofua leads his country’s delegation during the opening ceremony of the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympic Games at the Pyeongchang Stadium on February 9, 2018.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images.

Name: Pita Taufatofua

Home country: Tonga

Known for: Being shirtless and oily at the Rio opening ceremony, being shirtless and oily at the Pyeongchang opening ceremony, being famous for being shirtless and oily at Olympics opening ceremonies.

Why he might be a jerk: Taufatofua captured the world’s attention when the taekwondo athlete served as the Tongan flagbearer at the 2016 Summer Games. The exuberant and glistening Taufatofua, who had coated his muscular torso in oil prior to the ceremony, was an instant social-media sensation and soon became known worldwide as “The Shirtless Tongan.” It was a good gimmick, and a fun diversion, and even though Taufatotua lost 16–1 in his sole taekwondo match in Rio, we all hoped we’d see him again at the Tokyo Games in 2020. But Taufatotua wasn’t willing to wait that long—and his impatience may well mark him as a jerk.

When the Pyeongchang Games held their opening ceremony last week, the Shirtless Tongan was there, half-naked and hoisting the Tongan flag as per his custom, having reinvented himself as a cross-country skier. It’s one thing to go shirtless at the Summer Olympics, and quite another to go shirtless in freezing temperatures at the Winter Games. While the latter is certainly a more impressive feat, it is also clearly a “look-at-me” stunt. Willfully defying the weather to maintain one’s personal brand is arguably jerky. During an NBC interview, Taufatotua was asked whether he was cold at the opening ceremony. “No, I wasn’t cold at all,” he replied. “I mean, when you’re from Polynesia, the warmth comes from inside out, not outside in.” That’s not how staying warm works! Of course he was cold! Way to evade the question with a phony answer, Shirtless Tongan!

Though Taufatotua was rapturously received by opening ceremony viewers, his presence in Pyeongchang was still mildly confusing, sort of like how Joe Pesci’s character comes back for no real reason, with a brand-new occupation, in Lethal Weapon 3 after stealing the show in Lethal Weapon 2. Was the Shirtless Tongan really an Olympic-caliber winter sports athlete, or was he just seeking to capitalize on the attention he received in Rio?

While Taufatotua may not have courted all the media attention he has received in Pyeongchang, he certainly hasn’t shunned it. The fellow is a constant presence on the NBC Olympics website and has been profiled by seemingly every news outlet with reporters in Pyeongchang. He has expounded on the superiority of coconut oil to olive oil. (“Olive oil is not good for the body. It’s only good for my salad,” he said.) He has offered advice to those who might want to date him. (“If you want to marry me, maybe you’ve got to become a sport because I’m married to my sport,” he said.)

The attention he has received is wholly disproportionate to the attention he deserves. Sure, his story is interesting enough, but most of the athletes in Pyeongchang have interesting stories—and most of the athletes in Pyeongchang are also legitimate winter athletes. Training for just a year and putting yourself $35,000 into debt so you can backdoor your way into an Olympics event you’ll use to promote your personal narrative is not an intrinsically noble and inspirational act.

Taufatotua only took up cross-country skiing in January 2017, and he only earned his place at the Pyeongchang Games in January 2018. He finished 114th out of 116 finishers in the men’s 15-kilometer individual event on Friday. (The two men who finished behind him were both over 40 years old.) After finishing next-to-next-to-last, Taufatotua hinted he might return for a third Olympics, in 2020, in yet another event he hasn’t mastered and won’t win, just like Joe Pesci returned with yet another occupation in Lethal Weapon 4, which was by far the worst Lethal Weapon movie.

Why he might not be a jerk: Far be it from me to criticize anyone for milking a good gimmick. If your gimmick is taking your shirt off at Olympics opening ceremonies, then absolutely you should try to attend as many Olympics as you can. If your gimmick can only be deployed every two years, you should make darn sure you’re on hand to deploy that gimmick when the time comes. Also, be honest: If you were a moderately athletic person who hailed from a nation that was by no means an Olympic powerhouse, wouldn’t you consider trying to train for some random event so you could qualify and attend? I sure would. If I had dual citizenship with Tonga, I would 100 percent try to team up with this dude for something like doubles luge. (I would keep my shirt on because I am very much out of shape.)

On his GoFundMe page, Taufatotua explained the philosophy behind his Olympic exertions: “My goal is to motivate and inspire people to reach for the best within them and I do that through setting seemingly ‘Impossible’ goals and then moving mountains to achieve them.” There’s nothing to dislike about that. Unlike when hurdler Lolo Jones joined the American bobsled team in 2014 after failing to medal in her real event, the hurdles, at the London Games in 2012, Taufatotua wasn’t depriving any full-time Tongan winter athletes of their spots in Pyeongchang. Finally, when he isn’t mythologizing his ability to withstand the cold, he has shown himself to be a thoughtful fellow. When asked to describe his goals for Friday’s race, Taufatorua was self-deprecating: “Finish before they turn the lights off. That’s number one. Don’t ski into a tree. That’s number two.” He later expounded on what he was expecting of himself during the race:

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

Taufatofua might have finished 114th, but he finished the race, which is more than some Olympic cross-country tourists have done, and which is perhaps more than could have reasonably been expected from a guy from a snowless country who just took up the sport last year. Is Taufatofua an Olympian? Absolutely. Is he an Olympic jerk? Hardly.

Jerk Score: I’ll give him 1 out of 3 for style, because I actually think olive oil is more stylish than coconut oil for body-rubbing purposes. 1 out of 3 for technical merit, because he deserves at least a little credit for not skiing into a tree. 1 out of 3 for execution, because it would have been much jerkier to seek fame as the “Pantless Tongan.” And 1 out of 1 points in the category of “Did he summon painful memories of the horrible film Lethal Weapon 4?” 4 out of 10 points for Pita Taufatofua, the Shirtless Tongan. Next!

Previously on Olympics Jerk Watch: 

The Vice President of the United States of America: 7 out of 10 Jerk Points

The Sporteaucrats Who Risked Snowboarders’ Lives: 6.5 out of 10 Jerk Points

Read the rest of Slate’s coverage of the Pyeongchang Olympics.