Like clockwork, the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics began a new four-year cycle on Friday, providing a much-needed sense of regularity to our very tumultuous world. Viewers of the Opening Ceremonies were treated to another satisfying constant as the Tongan flagbearer Pita Taufatofua, who captivated the world with his oiled-up, shirtless physique at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, reappeared in all his glossy, greasy, bare-chested glory.
His gift to humanity came at an insanely steep price. Walking out with nothing but a traditional Tongan mat tied around his waist meant braving Pyeongchang’s glacial cold. Temperatures at the Opening Ceremonies dipped to a frigid 31 degrees Fahrenheit and in reality felt like 25 degrees. It’s so cold at the open-air stadium that attendees were each given a windbreaker, lap blanket, knit cap, hand and feet warmers, and heated seat cushions.
But the temperature did not seem to faze Taufatofua, who proudly strode through the stadium like a lustrous, tanned stallion.
His ability to withstand the cold is especially impressive knowing that the 34-year-old, who is representing Tonga in cross-country skiing at Pyeongchang, has admitted to having only about three months’ experience with snow. Right now, in sunny Tonga, the temperature is about 80 degrees Fahrenheit; year-round, it rarely dips below 63 degrees, even in the cool season.
In an interview with CNN prior to the opening ceremonies, he admitted he was worried about going shirtless. “I don’t know if it’s possible to beat that event, it was a Summer Games,” he said. “It’s going to be minus 18 to minus 20, wind chill minus 25.”
“I want to make sure that I can at least make it to my race and that I’m not frozen to death, so I have to stay warm at the opening ceremony.”
Taufatofua was probably far from warm, but he appeared to survive the chill by employing techniques to keep his body temperature up in such frigid conditions. Perhaps more than anyone, people who regularly take part in the polar bear plunge are the best-acquainted with these techniques, knowing full well the ins and outs of the naked body’s relationship with the cold.
In an interview with Live Science in 2016, veteran plunger Ben Wolf said that the “key to a successful plunge is moving around a lot,” a technique that he says allows him to spend an average of seven to ten minutes in the water. The principle behind this technique is also what causes our bodies to automatically shiver when it’s cold: by moving around, the muscles expend energy and thereby create heat. There’s only so much of this a body can do before it runs out of energy, though, which is why shivering is thought of as one of the body’s last-ditch efforts to get warm.
For his part, Taufatofua certainly looked like he stayed in motion, waving that giant Tongan flag with proud vigor.
In cold conditions, continuing to breathe normally is crucial too. When plunged into extreme cold, the body’s immediate impulse is to hyperventilate, and breathing becomes ragged and haphazard. This very inefficient way of breathing limits the amount of oxygen that gets into the bloodstream from the air, which in turn makes it harder for the body to provide its shivering muscles with what they need to produce heat. Breathing as regularly as you can — and it’s quite hard in the cold — is key to keeping muscles functioning optimally.
It’s hard to discern how regularly Taufatofua’s slick, broad, hairless chest heaved up and down in the cold during the Opening Ceremonies, but his energetic performance certainly suggests that he had his breathing technique on lock.
For his sake, we hope that he did warm up after his chilly jaunt around Pyeongchang’s Olympic Stadium, because after exposure to cold, recovery is key. Ingesting warm fluids and wearing warm clothes is the usual treatment, but in a pinch, according to emergency medicine specialists at WebMD, “you can try to get warm by making skin-to-skin contact.”
Pita Taufatofua, you know where to find me.