PYEONGCHANG, South Korea (AP) — Tongan flag bearer Pita Taufatofua has more on his mind than just trying to compete at the Pyeongchang Olympics this week.
The 34-year-old cross-country skier is concerned about his homeland after it was hit by a cyclone that destroyed Parliament House as well as churches and homes.
“Thank you for all the kind messages of support,” Taufatofua said on his Facebook account Tuesday. “Tonga has been hit very hard by Cyclone Gita resulting in a lot of damage. Still yet to hear word on the safety of family and friends along with the full scale of destruction.”
Taufatofua gained international attention at the Winter Olympics when he marched shirtless into the opening ceremony carrying his country’s flag. He also marched bare chested in the opening ceremony of the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro — albeit in more mild conditions — where he competed in taekwondo.
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Now that he’s in South Korea preparing to compete in the Winter Games, part of him wishes he was back home with his countrymen. In the meantime, he is looking to help raise funds for the damaged country.
“Please stay tuned over the coming days and weeks on how to assist our little country,” Taufatofua said. “Things like this really put life and what’s important in life into perspective. I wish I could be there right now to help.”
After his Olympic experience at the Summer Games in 2016, he decided to try his hand at cross-country skiing. Despite only picking up the sport within the last two years, he managed to qualify for the Winter Games on his last attempt.
He’s not expected to compete for the medal, but many feel he represents the spirit of the Olympic Games.
Tongans have begun cleaning up damage from the cyclone which caused power outages and tore through the Pacific island nation just south of the capital, Nuku’alofa, with winds exceeding 200 kilometers per hour (124 miles per hour) at landfall. Some 5,000 people stayed in evacuation centers overnight, according to officials, and an emergency was declared. There were no immediate reports of serious injuries or deaths.
The storm has strengthened since hitting Samoa and American Samoa last week, where it caused damage to buildings, widespread power outages and flooding.