Pita Taufatofua became a bit of an overnight sensation in 2016 when the athlete from Tonga marched into the Opening Ceremony of the Rio Olympic Summer Games bare-chested and drenched in coconut oil, wearing traditional Tongan clothes. And he made headlines again in Pyeongchang by pulling the stunt again in much colder conditions.
The fact he was even able to participate is a bit of an inspiring story as he qualified for Friday’s 15k cross-country free skiing event after training on snow for only 12 weeks. On Wednesday, Taufatofua held an extraordinary press conference (one led off by the president of the fledgling Tonga Ski Federation) explaining why he went through the effort to qualify for the winter Games. And in his story, there were some valuable lessons for event organizers and host cities about how they can run their events or organizations and the approach they can take to promoting their sports.
- Get children hooked on a sport early and they may stay with you for life. Asked why he chose taekwondo as the sport he initially wanted to qualify for during the Olympic Summer Games, Taufatofua said it was because he had taken taekwondo as a kid.
“Like any of these sports, he said, “once it’s in the blood it’s not going anywhere. It’s with you your whole life.”
- Sports have the power to influence people. Many CVBs and sports commissions are bringing events to their destinations in the hopes of benefiting the community overall, either through promoting healthy lifestyles or promoting the economic bottom line. The message is to never forget how big an influence sports can be on a community.
“I’m here to open doors for people in Tonga, for kids who are watching to show them that there are winter Olympics, that there are other sports other than rugby,” he said. “On a personal level I wanted to qualify and I wanted to achieve that goal. But for a bigger level, something much bigger than myself, it was what can I do with this. The truth of the matter is I won’t medal Friday. But in four years someone (from Tonga) might. In eight years they might. More importantly, these kids watching now will have access to something they never knew existed. For me that’s why I’m here.”
- Treat your hard workers the right way.
Sometimes it’s easiest to focus your attention on your star employees since they are doing the job well. But pay attention to those below them who are putting in a genuine effort and give them a chance to shine as well.
“As a kid when I grew up in Tonga, I was the smallest, the skinniest,” he said. “For four years in a row I tried rugby. I never once missed a training session and for four years I was never once put on a field. That told me two things: One is that I’m resilient—I don’t give up; Two, I needed better coaches at the time because that’s not how you treat people.”
- You get out of it what you put into it.
The Olympic creed says that it’s not about winning at the Games, it’s about taking part in them. The taking part theme applies to more than Olympians. You don’t have to organize or host the biggest sporting events in the world to inspire your community.
“If you look at the Olympic creed, it’s about struggle. The guy who gets the gold medal will burn his lungs until he collapses at the finish line. The guy who finishes last is going to burn his lungs until he collapses at the finish line. They’re never going to give up. One may be faster than the other, but they’re both going to give it the best they can.
“We have athletes who have been skiing and doing these other sports for 20 years. As an athlete, when you train, you always train to get a gold medal. At the end of the day, there’s going to be three athletes on that podium but there’s going to be 80 in that race who don’t get a medal. There’s going to be 80 million others who are doing cross-country who wanted to be a skier. Not every one of them is going to be on that podium, but it’s the struggle that’s going to translate in life to all those other 80 million people.”
- Always maintain a sense of humor.
Taufatofua may have come to the public’s attention for his coconut oil routine at the opening ceremonies, but it turns out he’s quite well spoken and funny as well. Maintaining a good sense of humor is important in nearly every endeavor and as stressful as organizing or hosting a sports event can be, it’s always important to keep some perspective.
“The goal was to qualify, to take Tonga to another Winter Olympics and do it in skiing,” he said. “I’ve had 12 weeks on snow in my whole life. On Friday, I’ll have 13 weeks on snow if the race takes me a week to finish.”