Written by C. Richard King.

The thought of athletes from tropical nations participating in the Winter Olympics strikes many Westerners as incongruous, even laughable. Accordingly, their presence elicits a mix of adoration, fascination, incredulity, and humour, often tinged with imperial overtones and racist undertones. While elements of these reactions are perhaps  understandable – after all, it does not snow in the tropics – they prevent us from fully understanding sport and society.

Pita Taufatofua, who represented Tonga at both the 2016 Summer Games in Rio and the 2018 Winter Games in Pyeongchang, nicely illustrates the limits of popular expectations, while providing insights into sport in the Pacific. Taufatofua, who placed 114th in the 15km freestyle this year, initially captured media attention not for his performance in taekwondo or cross country skiing, but as flag bearer at the opening ceremonies. In both 2016 and 2018, he strode into the arena in traditional regalia, his chest bare, a proud smile beaming. Taufatofua became a sensation, perhaps even a spectacle, celebrated for his physicality and marvelled over for his apparent singularity.

Despite his uniqueness, Taufatofua, a Tongan, who lives and trains in Australia, shares much in common with other Pacific Islanders in athletics. Dubbed a “major force” in sport, they have come to play a pivotal role in American football and rugby. They gain notoriety and make a living playing other people’s games, imported and imposed as part of civilising missions, meant to discipline bodies and reform minds. They often live their lives in transit, on the road to be sure, but also migrants pushed and pulled to new lands. Moreover, in common with many other athletes from the Pacific, Taufatofua had to struggle to succeed, leveraging his corporeal capital to pull himself up from difficult circumstances.

The media and public have reduced Taufatofua to his “oily abs,” transforming him into an object for consumption. This is very much in keeping with the Western conception of the Pacific Islands, which has long accentuated the beautiful brown bodies of the natives for pleasure and profit.

And, like other athletes from the Pacific Islands, physicality has defined Taufatofua. Indeed, above all else, the media and public have reduced Taufatofua to his “oily abs,” transforming him into an object for consumption. This is very much in keeping with the Western conception of the Pacific Islands, which has long accentuated the beautiful brown bodies of the natives for pleasure and profit. In fact, it is a staple of the tourism industry. The entanglements of the exotic and erotic that have typified the ways the West has fashioned the Pacific have played a central role in the framing of Taufatofua. Nearly every article on the athlete references his bare chest and remarks on his sex appeal. Cosmopolitan went so far as to ask him about dating apps and “on getting those abs” between alluring photos of Taufatofua.

While the public may see Taufatofua as little more than an object and may even find him laughable, he is not at the Olympics for anyone’s amusement. Instead, he, like many Pacific Islanders participates in sport, has a more ambitious and important agenda. In part, he hopes to inspire others, communicating a message that anything is possible. “[For] those watching in the Pacific, they’ll have access to something they never knew existed before…That’s why I did it, to open these doors.”

Even more, Taufatofua speaks of his participation in the Olympics in terms of identity and heritage. “If my ancestors can sail across the Pacific Ocean for a thousand years, then I can walk through an opening ceremony without a shirt on for 25 minutes and represent a thousand-year heritage. The last 50, 60 years that’s when we’ve been told to wear; I want to represent 1,000 years of history.” Although it might be too much to say that his entrances in Rio and Pyeongchang were acts of resistance, it is clear that they were statements of affirmation, intent to empower. In this, Taufatofua actions resonate with those of countless Pacific Islanders who play sport to remember their ancestors, declare their presence, and uplift those around them.

Taufatofua is not the first Pacific Islander to participate in the Winter Olympics. Four years earlier, one of his fellow countryman, Fuahea Semi, competed in the luge under the moniker Bruno Banini, a name not coincidentally shared with a German lingerie company, which sponsored him. Like Semi before him, who wove together nationalism and capitalism in his appearance, Taufatofua has also seized on his appearance at the Games in Rio and Pyeongchang to cultivate a highly visible presence in the media, arguably crafting a personal brand well suited for the social media era.  At this writing he has over 172,000 followers on Instagram. In this regard, Taufatofua may be showing us what the future looks like for athletes from the Pacific Islands who use media to orchestrate  personal stories, national narratives, and global flows, even as the media use them.

C. Richard King is a Professor at the Department of Critical Culture, Gender and Race Studies at Washington State University. His research concentrates on the racial politics of culture. He is particularly interested in theories of race and racism, white supremacist movements and ideologies, and the forms of memory, representation, identity, and power animating race relations. He has explored these themes in the context of expressive culture (museums, sports, films, music) and political struggles (indigenous activism concerned with representation, naming, and history), and has been published extensively on the subject. Image credit: by Pita Taufatofua/Twitter.

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