10 Aug 2016

Tongan flag-bearer wins hearts and minds

1:25 pm on 10 August 2016

Rio 2016 Olympics - Taekwondo athlete Pita Taufatofua "broke the internet" the moment cameras zoomed in on the Tongan flag-bearer's coconut-oiled body and cheeky grin at the Olympics Opening Ceremony.

Some viewers immediately demanded all gold medals be handed over to Tonga.

And while most were happy to just tweet their appreciation for the self-described Tongan ninja, the Australian tried to steal his shine by attempting to claim their magazine cover as his style inspiration.

This resulted in a swift smackdown from Poly Twitter:

The athlete has since had praise heaped on him from media outlets including Time Magazine, the Wall Street Journal, E! News and, most recently, what looked to be a pretty uncomfortable interaction with the hosts of the Today Show.

His pictures backstage with Brazilian supermodel Adriana Lima show he also possesses an Olympic-level selfie-game.

Taufatofua is making use of his newfound fame to shine a light on Tonga, and the Tongan culture, explaining the traditional use of coconut oil and the intricacies of his traditional garb to the Chicago Tribune.

"The bottom half is called a tapa, and has traditional design which is called a manulua. The kafa, which holds the tapa up, that was made by my aunty who passed away before I could come here."

Taufatofua will compete in the men's over-80kg taekwondo event on Sunday. It comes after years of perseverance after twice previously missing out on Olympic qualification.

"The dream started 20 years ago and my third attempt - it's been this accumulation of just a lot of work and just reaching it finally has been actually a big relief.

"A lot of weight has been taken off my shoulders and finally just realising the dream I've never experienced this sort of joy before - it's crazy, it's nuts!"

RNZ International caught up with him just before he left for Rio, and an interview with him back in March can be found here.

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