YANQING, China — Nathan Ikon Crumpton, a skeleton athlete at the Winter Olympics, woke up in Beijing last weekend a new sports hero in China — and he hadn’t even competed yet.
Last Friday night, the flag-bearer from American Samoa strode into the opening ceremony wearing little more than baby oil, flip-flops and an “ie toga,” or finely decorated traditional Samoan mat, that was wrapped around his waist. The temperature was around 23 degrees Fahrenheit.
The internet exploded.
In an interview with The New York Times, Mr. Crumpton wanted to reassure everyone that he was not that cold, despite the frigid weather. He had on two coats and did a series of jumping jacks minutes before unveiling his shirtless body to the world, he said.
“I’ve had to slide in some bitter cold temperatures before, and I actually thought it was going to be colder than it really was,” he said on Tuesday after a training session, dressed in a lot more clothing. “The one thing that did get really cold were my hands.”
Mr. Crumpton was not expecting the flagpole he was carrying in Beijing to be made of metal.
“As soon as I gripped it, within 30 seconds, my hands were getting numb,” he said. “But other than that, though, it was fine,” he added. “I probably could have lasted maybe another three or four minutes before I started to feel it.”
The 36-year-old was also the flag-bearer for American Samoa during last year’s Tokyo Olympics, where he competed in the 100-meter dash. He is one of only five athletes in Beijing who have also competed in the Summer Games.
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But it was Mr. Crumpton’s shirtless display in Beijing that won love from the media, with headlines such as: “‘OMG’: New topless Winter Olympics figure takes world by storm.” On Google, searches for “American Samoa” spiked. His photos immediately went viral, appearing on the Chinese internet with the hashtag #HotGuysOfTheWinterOlympics.
“I’ve got a loose sense of the virality, but I’m trying to stay a bit shielded inside the village until after my race is done,” he said in an email from the Olympic Village.
Mr. Crumpton is the first Winter Olympian representing American Samoa in 28 years. His outfit last Friday featured a choker called an “Ulanifo,” along with a red “Ulafala,” which is traditionally worn by the village high chiefs of Samoa. His headpiece — “pale fuiono” — was adorned with rare silver nautilus shells.
He raced on Thursday in two heats, finishing 20th with a time of 2:03.71, and was set to compete again on Friday. His journey to competing for the Polynesian archipelago was an unlikely one. Until 2019, Mr. Crumpton — a Princeton graduate and a resident of Park City, Utah — had never traveled to the territory.
A track athlete for most of his life, Mr. Crumpton saw skeleton on television during the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. “I just thought it was the coolest sport I’d ever seen in my life and I thought, ‘I have to give it a try,’” he said. “It was so much fun that I just had to keep going with it.”
In 2011, Mr. Crumpton made it to Team USA, competing for them for eight years. He rose to No. 2 in the country before his career in the United States came to an abrupt halt.
In 2019, a teammate filed a complicated arbitration case against the USA Bobsled and Skeleton Federation that challenged the organization’s criterion for the World Cup races. The suit resulted in Mr. Crumpton losing his chance to compete in the World Cup and World Championship that season. Then, he left the team altogether.
“I was out the door, a rather bitter and a rather sad athlete,” he said. But he quickly started looking for other options to fulfill his Olympic dream.
Born in Kenya to a father working for the United States Foreign Service, Mr. Crumpton has lived in Kenya, Tanzania, Switzerland, Zimbabwe, the United States and Australia. At one point, he considered representing Kenya as an athlete, but the authorities there did not appear keen to fast-track a passport for him, he said.
“That’s when I emailed American Samoa and asked if they were interested in a slider, because I thought they might recognize Polynesian as part of their National Olympic Committee, and would be willing to adopt me essentially,” said Mr. Crumpton, whose mother is Hawaiian and Chinese.
American Samoa, eager to have more representation in winter sports, readily greeted him.
In 2019, Mr. Crumpton flew to the territory to resurrect the American Samoa Bobsled Federation, which had been dormant after it fielded a two-man bobsled team in 1994. It took 300 euros (about $340) for Mr. Crumpton and some paperwork to reactivate the federation’s status with the International Bobsled and Skeleton Federation.
Mr. Crumpton has no coach. He has partnered with the British team to help him film his sliding. He then reviews the videos and makes his own notes.
“I’m my own manager, travel agent and my own sliding coach,” he said. “It’s certainly not ideal. But with my limited budget, it’s sort of what I’m forced to do to.”
Skeleton racing is expensive — Mr. Crumpton, who is a model and a photographer, estimates that he has spent roughly $40,000 this season. He has a scholarship from the International Olympic Committee’s Solidarity Fund, but it covers only about half his expenses.
To raise more money, Mr. Crumpton started a GoFundMe page for people to back him in exchange for getting their names stickered on his sled. He also self-published a book, “Alpha Status,” which his website describes as “500+ pages of shocking licentiousness that makes ‘50 Shades of Grey’ read like a children’s story.”
He wrote it after failing to make it to the 2018 Winter Olympics because of a herniated disc injury.
Mr. Crumpton said the odds are stacked against him in a sport that is driven by technology and money. “I know I’m not a medal favorite,” he said. This skeleton season is going to be his last, he said.
“I realize that my days of top 10 World Cups and World Championship finishes are likely behind me,” he said. “It’s more been about just sliding and having fun.”