The 37-year-old Olympian has become the first athlete to compete in three games in a row—and chances are, you noticed him. He first rose to viral fame at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio when he stepped out during the Opening Ceremony bearing the Tongan flag...oiled up and shirtless. In addition to competing in Taekwondo and skiing, he's carried on the flag tradition ever since with headlines hailing his glistening return every time.
During an exclusive interview with E! News Aug. 4, we finally got the chance to ask the burning question on everyone's mind: What kind of oil is it?! "OK, this is top secret," he quipped. "It's not olive oil. It's not canola oil. It's a special coconut oil that we make in Tonga. And my aunties made it for me, so it was handmade, hand-scraped by my family and then a few little spices added in and some local flowers. It gives a good shine."
While he's fully acquainted with being a viral sensation at this point, back in 2016, it was entirely foreign. "The first Olympics, I didn't even know what viral meant. I came from Tonga. I didn't know what all of these big words meant," he recalled. "I was new to this space." Now in Tokyo, it's a different atmosphere amid the coronavirus pandemic. "Once we got to this Olympics," he noted, "I'm like, 'I'm not sure if I want to go viral. There's a pandemic at the moment.' We're doing our best not to go viral."
Though his stardom has come with punchlines—"You walk out half naked covered in oil, you're going to expose yourself to certain words and certain memes"—the opportunity granted by that attention is not lost on him.
"It means a lot because of the impact that I believe that we can have due to that platform. If you go viral, you now have more people, more eyes on you. What do you do with those eyes? What's the bigger picture that's beyond me?" he asked. "What's larger than Pita Taufatofua from Tonga? Well, it's the kids who are watching, dreaming, hoping. This is what sports is. Sports is about giving hope to people who don't have hope and we use ourselves as a vehicle to do this. We're the one in front of the camera, so they see that. They see us trying to overcome struggles and then they try to overcome struggles in their life by seeing us."
For the athletes, those struggles can often involve mental health, which Taufatofua helped shine a light on when he encouraged fellow competitors to reach out to him to talk through any challenge. Now his efforts are being celebrated by P&G, which is extending a donation to a charity of his choice, through their Athletes for Good Fund grants. However, the Tongan star's post drew response beyond the Olympic community.
"It was somewhat of a bit of Pandora's box once I made that post because I just got so many messages," he said. "I got a whole lot from the Olympic athletes, but I got a whole lot from the general public—some of them are wanting to be athletes, some of them are just wanting to exercise in general and the struggling with some level of mental health around it."
While those vying for gold, silver and bronze at the Olympics are concerned with the pressures of competing, media coverage and their country's reaction, once they're finished, the challenges don't stop. "What happens is after our event, we're meant to leave within two days. And then their questioning has been around the idea of, 'What do I do now? What happens now? My whole life has been about this goal. Now that goal is done, what happens now?'" he explained.
Reflecting on an athlete who came in 11th place, he said, "You're top 11, top 12 in the world, but the media was quite harsh on her saying that she shouldn't have been sent, why didn't she get the gold? And the funding was for a gold, and so, that really hits someone on the inside because they're giving their absolute heart and soul. They're leading with love for their country."
Ultimately, according to Taufatofua, being an athlete can't be just about the physical. "The head has to be working for the legs to be running," he said. "It's about finding the balance and making sure that we're supported physically and in the mental health space."