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Tonga’s shirtless flag bearer is back at the Olympics, but this time he has competition

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 7/23/2021 Matt Bonesteel
a group of people posing for a picture: Tongan flag bearers Malia Paseka and Pita Taufatofua during the athletes' parade at the opening ceremonies. (REUTERS/Hannah McKay) © Hannah Mckay/Reuters Tongan flag bearers Malia Paseka and Pita Taufatofua during the athletes' parade at the opening ceremonies. (REUTERS/Hannah McKay)

In this corner, a taekwondo athlete making his third shirtless, glistening appearance as a flag bearer at the Olympic Opening Ceremonies: Pita Taufatofua of Tonga!

And in this corner the challenger, a rower out of the tiny South Pacific island nation of Vanuatu, also sans shirt and also quite glossy: Riilio Rii!

Taufatofua and his relentless shirtlessness has become something of an Olympic tradition, as he’s now been a flag bearer for Tonga three times, twice at the Summer Games and once as a cross-country skier at the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics. He secured his latest Olympic berth in a March taekwondo qualifying event in Australia, beating Papua New Guinea’s Steven Tommy in the Oceania qualifier.

“Looks like we’re going to need more coconut oil,” Taufatofua joked on Instagram.

He had hoped to qualify in sprint kayak as well as taekwondo for the Tokyo Games, telling the BBC last year that the sport is “a sport that’s close to my heart as it’s what my ancestors did for thousands of years when they colonized the Polynesian islands.” But in February, Taufatofua wrote on Instagram that he had torn muscles in his rib cage, affecting his performance.

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Still, it’s hard to imagine an Olympics without him.

Rii is making his Olympic debut in single-sculls rowing and already has started competing, finishing sixth and last in his heat Thursday night. He’ll get another chance to advance in the repechage Friday night.

Nicknamed “Rio,” Rii won Vanuatu’s first-ever gold medal at the 2018 Commonwealth Rowing Championships, a regatta for rowers from Commonwealth nations held in conjunction with the Commonwealth Games, the quadrennial event involving current and former members of the British Empire. Vanuatu, an archipelago located about 1,110 miles to the east of Australia, achieved independence from joint British-French rule in 1980.

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