Feb 4, 2022 - Sports

Olympian Pita Taufatofua uses his platform to help tsunami-struck Tonga

Photo of a shirtless, oiled up Pita Taufatofua wearing red and black traditional clothing on the bottom and smiling at the crowd

Pita Taufatofua of Tonga stands on stage during the closing ceremony of the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympic Games on Feb. 25, 2018, in Pyeongchang-gun, South Korea. Photo: Dan Istitene via Getty Images

The Beijing Winter Olympics were less than a month away when an underwater volcano erupted and sent a tsunami hurtling toward Tonga. Within hours, Olympian Pita Taufatofua had set up a GoFundMe and sent out calls for help on social media.

Why it matters: Taufatofua, who isn't competing in Beijing but first gained international attention as the Tongan flag bearer at three other Games, has used his platform to amplify Tonga's needs as the tropical island nation struggles to recover. The dual disasters killed at least three people and wiped out all communications on the island.

What he's saying: "Maybe it's part of being an Olympian or probably just part of being a Tongan. When times are tough is when you've got to push your hardest," Taufatofua told Olympics.com.

  • "I have to keep pushing. I have to keep doing interviews. I have to keep reaching out to the world and working on a fundraiser. We're trying to do what we can do."

But as the Olympics got closer, Taufatofua chose to remain focused on the disaster response and decided not to try to qualify.

  • "Even with the qualification criteria, I wouldn’t have been able to go to Beijing,” he told the New York Times. There are “too many people who are hungry for me to not be focused there."
  • "I’ll certainly miss it," Taufatofua said, adding that "what the Olympics stands for is more than just sport, and so I feel there’s some level of Olympic effort that we’re doing now anyway."

His story: Taufatofua grew up in a one-bedroom house with his parents and six siblings. He was a child when they lost their home in a tropical storm.

  • In 2016, he made his Olympic debut in Rio and drew attention for his appearance at the opening ceremony. He'd covered his body with coconut oil, an expression of ancestral identity, and donned traditional Tongan clothing worn for formal occasions.
  • Though he lost his first taekwondo bout, interest in him surged and led to worldwide Google searches about Tonga.

The big picture: Today, Taufatofua serves as UNICEF’s Pacific ambassador, works with charities to support unhoused youth and advocates for climate action to combat global warming, which disproportionately impacts Pacific nations.

Worth noting: Some Pacific Islanders have expressed concern that the flood of interest in Taufatofua contributes to a long history of hypersexualizing Pacific Islanders. For Taufatofua, it's always been about representing his heritage.

The bottom line: "Pita uses sport for the power of good, and is the perfect embodiment of the Olympic spirit," Olympic.com writes.

Editor's note: This story has been updated to note that Taufatofua isn't competing at the Beijing Games.

Go deeper