Here’s the Story Behind Kiribati’s Dancing Weightlifter, David Katoatau

There have been some impressive, inspiring, and downright jaw-dropping weightlifting performances so far at the Rio Olympics, but one story seems to stand above the rest. Lifting in the men’s 105kg B group on Monday, Kiribati’s David Katoatau finished with a 349kg total — but despite his placement well outside the medals, Katoatau made international headlines for his jubilant dancing after each lift, which he performed following both made and missed attempts. He was also his nation’s flag bearer at the opening ceremonies in Rio.

You can see the highlights in a video from NBC — which has embedding blocked, so we can’t list in on this page — but for casual or new weightlifting fans, there’s something important to note: This isn’t Katoatau’s first time dancing on the platform, and he’s doing so for a cause greater than himself.

Katoatau — who is competing in his third Olympics at 32 years old — has been lifting internationally for a decade, competing as an 85, 94, and now 105kg lifter. His first international medal was a bronze in the 85kg category at the 2006 Pacific Games, and he followed that up with a gold in the 94kg class at the same competition in 2007.

Here he is dancing after his final attempt in the 2016 Pacific Games, held in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea. Katoatau won the competition, so it’d be relatively easy to think he’s simply celebrating a well-earned victory.

He also won the 105kg title at the 2014 Commonwealth Games, which was Kiribati’s first-ever Commonwealth Games medal. 

Katoatau hails from Kiribati, a Pacific nation of 33 islands and around 100,000 people that is particularly hard-hit by erosion due to rising sea levels caused by climate change. With few resources for athletes, Kiribati’s lifters must get creative with their training; as a boy Katoatau often trained on the beach in the open sun.

In an interview with Reuters, the weightlifter said he wants to use his time on the platform — however brief it is from competition to competition — to bring attention to his home nation and the challenges its people face.

“Most people don’t know where Kiribati is…I want people to know more about us so I use weightlifting, and my dancing, to show the world. I wrote an open letter to the world last year to tell people about all the homes lost to rising sea levels. I don’t know how many years it will be before it sinks.”

In 2014, Katoatau used his Commonwealth Games winnings to build a new house for his parents. Unfortunately, the home was destroyed in a cyclone soon thereafter. His family has since rebuilt, but with rising sea levels and an ever-present risk of catastrophic storms, Katoatau continues to worry for their long-term safety.

David Katoatau has brought a relatively rare moment of international attention to both his home country and the sport of weightlifting. Hopefully, his story is one we won’t soon forget.