TOKYO, Japan – Tonga’s Pita Taufatofua was feeling the love on Saturday after getting oiled up to make a splash in line at a third consecutive Olympic opening ceremony, but this time he was challenged by an equally torn Vanuatu rower.
Taufatofua first captured global attention when the Rio Games opened in 2016, appearing topless and glistening in body oil while excitedly waving the flag of her small South Pacific nation.
He racked up 45 million Twitter mentions in a matter of hours, then repeated his feats with his chest at the curtain raises at the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Games, despite the freezing conditions.
The 37-year-old, who competes in taekwondo in Tokyo, was once again a popular online focal point at the Games’ opening ceremony on Friday, acting as a co-flagger for Tonga with fellow martial artist Malia Paseka.
This time, however, there was a fly in the ointment in the form of Vanuatu’s rower Riilio Rii, a 27-year-old Games debutant who also showed off his gleaming torso while wearing a traditional multi-colored grass skirt.
The confrontation inevitably led to a series of “who wore it best?” debates online, with the weight of the official Olympic Twitter account.
“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” he posted the Games feed along with a picture of Taufatofua, then said “Pita, we see you and we raise you” after Rii’s appearance.
Both athletes had their supporters, and the Rowing Voice trade publication declared that Rii “won the night … looking majestic down to his feet.”
Taufatofua did not appear to be fazed by the competition when he posted a message to his fans on Saturday.
“Thank you all for the labels and honey,” he wrote. “I’m not sure if going viral during a pandemic is a good thing, but I appreciate all the messages and support.”
Brisbane-based Taufatofua qualified for taekwondo in Rio, then cross-country skiing in Pyeongchang, hoping to kayak in Tokyo to become the first athlete to play three different Games in three different sports.
The kayak offer fell through, but he told AFP before the games that he would bring his paddle to Japan in case an opening arose after taekwondo ended.
“If there’s a free lane there and an old rubber ducky so I can get on and paddle, I’ll be in it,” he said.
He also revealed that he was mulling over the filmmakers’ offerings and was looking forward to seeing his underdog story portrayed on the big screen.
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