Taufatofua wants to go to Tokyo 2020. What will it take?

As more than a few have pointed out this week, Pita Taufatofua faces a steep learning curve if he is to achieve his dream of qualifying for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics as a canoe sprint athlete.

He faces the twin peak challenge of not only mastering a sport which his opponents have been practicing for years, but also actually qualifying for the Games.

It’s a wonderful story – Tongan taekwondo athlete marches at Rio 2016 opening ceremony without shirt, sending the internet and hearts around the world into meltdown, reappears two years later at 2018 Winter Olympics, again displays a disdain for clothing, and again the world goes weak at the knees.

When everyone finally calmed down, and the bottle of body oil was put back in the cupboard, those who dug a little deeper than the memes and social media frenzy found this Tongan warrior had a really good story to tell.

Pita Taufatofua has faced challenges all his life, many which make qualifying for a third Olympics in a third different sport seem like a perfectly reasonable thing to do, and eminently achievable.

One of six siblings living with their mum and dad in a one-bedroom Tongan house that ultimately proved incapable of withstanding one of those famous Pacific storms, a career as an elite athlete never seemed likely, or was probably ever considered.

He started taekwondo aged five, and two decades later, after countless broken bones and two failed attempts, he made the Tongan Olympic team for Rio 2016. He never made it past the first round, but that wasn’t the point.

It also wasn’t the point when two years later Pita Taufatofua became the first athlete to represent Tonga at a Winter Olympics. He finished 114th out of 119 in the men’s cross country, but that’s not important.

What is important is that 35-year-old Taufatofua is now embarking on another challenge, probably his biggest yet. He wants to become the first athlete in the past century to compete at three different Olympics in three different sports.

The International Canoe Federation first became aware of Taufatofua’s possible interest in mid-2018, when representatives started asking questions about what would be required to get a Tongan athlete qualified for Tokyo 2020.

And now the world is asking the same question. It’s complicated, but here goes…

The first task is to get the Tongan Canoe Federation to enter Taufatofua in this year’s ICF Canoe Sprint World Championships in Szeged, Hungary. These days he lives mostly in Brisbane, Australia, but there is no doubting his claim to Tongan representation.

Once that is done, Taufatofua only needs to start the race in Szeged to meet the criteria to be eligible for Olympic selection.

But then it gets tricky. If he can finish top five in his chosen event, likely to be the K1 200, he will earn Tonga an automatic quota for Tokyo. It’s then up to Tonga to decide if he will be the athlete to take that quota.

If he doesn’t finish top five in Szeged, and remember, many of the athletes he will be up against have competed at several Olympics and have been training for years, he will then need to rely on Oceania qualifications.

A lot will depend on how Australia and New Zealand, the Oceania powerhouses, perform in Szeged. It may all come down to the Oceania championships, and then it gets complicated.

The other possible option is to nominate Taufatofua for a tripartite invitation place. These are traditionally reserved for countries who have less than six athletes qualified for the Olympics.

To be in the running, Taufatofua would need to be nominated by the Tongan Federation.

"I just wanted to represent my country's culture and heritage," Taufatofua told one interviewer this week.

“In Tonga we work with what we have and I believe we can achieve this.

"I want to highlight the problems we face but also inspire people here to speak up and make them believe they can make real change because there's so much untapped potential in this part of the world."

Let the journey begin. It’s going to be a fascinating ride.

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