Pita Taufatofua calls for funding and support for Tonga following tsunami and volcano eruption: "Reach out to Tongans around the world"

The three-time Olympian aims to raise awareness and money for relief efforts through crowdfunding, following the natural disaster in his home nation of Tonga on Saturday.

By Sanjeev Palar

Pita Taufatofua, the dual-sport Olympian who shot to fame as Tonga's Opening Ceremony flagbearer, has urged people across the world to come together and do whatever they can to help the people of his homeland.

The first foreign aid planes arrived in Tonga on Thursday (20 January), five days after the Pacific nation was devastated by a tsunami, followed a volcanic eruption on Saturday. Thanks to the efforts of Taufatofua and others, half a million dollars have been raised for the relief effort via his crowdfunding appeal.

"Tonga gets hit by a volcanic eruption, covered in ash and then a tsunami comes through and hits Tonga as well. It's been a devastating last few days," Taufatofua told Olympics.com from Australia on Thursday.

"Once I started to see the footage of all of the waves coming in, I sat there and I thought, 'this is going to be catastrophic for our island. We're going to need help.'

"So I set up that GoFundMe page and the initial target was to help hospitals and schools, anything that was damaged along those lines, and then to see what the need was."

Tonga and families cut off from the world

Communication with the 169 Polynesian islands which make up the Kingdom of Tonga, around 36 of which are inhabited, was initially severed after the volcanic eruption and resulting tsunami. Some form of basic telecommunications network has now been re-established, enabling a trickle of information to get through to the outside world.

Taufatofua shared that some of his family have been in contact to confirm that they are safe, but he is yet to hear from his father.

"We received one single message from a cousin of mine in [the main island of] Haapai. And the message was along the lines of, 'The waves have come through the house. House is still standing. Everyone is fine.' And we weren't even able to message back."

"My father at that same time was on Tongatapu and I haven't heard from him since the day before the eruption." - Pita Taufatofua

Shortly after the interview with Olympics.com it was confirmed that Pita's dad had also been found safe.

With the first aid now arriving from overseas, Taufatofua is hopeful that communications can be re-established, and is keeping positive.

"Maybe it's part of being an Olympian or probably just part of being a Tongan. When times are tough is when you've got to push your hardest.

"I have to keep pushing. I have to keep doing interviews. I have to keep reaching out to the world and working on a fundraiser. We're trying to do what we can do."

Crowdfunding help and support to Tonga

Taufatofua competed at Rio 2016, as the first Tongan to qualify for an Olympics in taekwondo. He made headlines when marching into the Opening Ceremony during the athletes' parade in Brazil wearing traditional Tongan formal clothing and without a shirt.

He repeated the feat in going topless in freezing sub-zero temperatures at the start of the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Games, where he competed in cross-country skiing

The athlete made more history when he returned to the taekwondo mat at Tokyo 2020 in 2021, making it three consecutive Olympic Games.

The 38-year-old is grateful to be able to use his global profile to make the appeal for his country.

"I just feel so honoured and blessed with regards to the Olympics to be able to have a platform to be able do this. It's just started to take off now. People are getting behind us from all around the world."

Having set a target of one million Australian dollars (USD 725,000), the Tonga Tsunami relief by Pita Taufatofua crowdfunding campaign is gaining traction with over 50 percent of the targeted funds collected in the first four days, and the athlete has been amazed by the positive response to his fundraising efforts to-date.

"I got a message from, I believe, a lady in Japan. And she said, "You waved to me in Tokyo at the Tokyo Olympics. You waved to me and now I'm returning the favour [with a donation]." And I sat there and I thought - I waved. I need to start waving to everybody."

"People around the world, if they can donate to any fundraisers, whether it be myself or other ones, if they can spread the word, share the images coming out of Tonga, that would mean a lot to us so that governments can see that there are 170 islands covered in ash.

"And for those who can't donate, share. Reach out to the Tongans around the world, reach out to anyone you know, from Tonga and the Pacific and let them know that you're supporting them."

The Olympic flame still burns bright

The Tongan will not be competing at Beijing 2022 in February, and will be spending the coming weeks focusing on the relief efforts.

"Right now my focus is on making sure that we can help with the Tonga rebuild and then and then my energies will move back to the Olympics," he shared, suggesting a return to competition for his nation, with the 2032 Olympic Games being held in his current home city of Brisbane, Australia.

Taufatofua is grateful for all the support that has poured in from the Olympic community and across the globe, particularly on social media.

"To everyone around the world, I just want to give nothing but appreciation to everyone. The outpouring that we're starting to see on our fundraising page and through messages... people are messaging Tongans all around the world saying, "Hey, we see you, we care."

It's been phenomenal. I just wanted to say thank you. Thank you for that outreach. Thank you for sharing with your governments about our little country and thank you for checking in on the Tongan people."

"To all the people of Tonga - we have been standing by all of you. We weren't there, but we're here, working, trying to do our absolute best... so that we're in a position that we can offer support and aid and help with the rebuilding process."

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