Commentary

Bruno Banani: The luger, gimmick

The first Tongan Winter Olympian changed name to match underwear company

Updated: February 9, 2014, 1:49 PM ET
By Wayne Drehs | ESPN.com

KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia -- As the sled flew down the track Saturday night, the woman couldn't control herself. Stuffed into a puffy red coat, she jumped up and down. She held a red flag high above her head. And at the top of her lungs, she screamed.

"Go, Bruno!" she yelled.

"Go, Tonga!"

"Go, Tonga!"

The woman was the official spokesperson for the royal family of Tonga, the tiny country of 176 islands in the South Pacific. She was here as part of the delegation to support the country's first winter Olympian, Bruno Banani. It was this dream, with Banani soaring along the track at the Sanki Sliding Center, that her and her employers had waited five years to see come true.

But the mind-boggling tale of how it actually came to be is a story you unquestionably haven't heard before. Unless you already know the one about the introverted, quiet Tongan man who changed his name to a German underwear company in hopes of making the Olympics.

[+] EnlargeBruno Banani
Alex Livesey/Getty ImagesBruno Banani answered a radio ad, and then became an Olympian.

The saga began in 2009 when Princess Salote Mafile'o Pilolevu Tuita decided her country needed a representative in the Winter Games. It was a dream of Jamaican-bobsled proportions. Tonga's all-time low temperature is 50 degrees. It's anything but mountainous terrain. And it's most popular sport is rugby, where strength and power are key attributes, not sled maneuvering.

But the princess didn't care. She wanted to inspire her people. And like the Jamaicans of Hollywood fame, she wanted people to know her country. They were familiar with Fiji and Samoa, she felt. But not always Tonga. The royal family had a prior relationship with a Hawaiian man who had founded Makai, a new German public relations firm. Together, an idea was hatched. They would host a casting call in Tonga in search of the right man who shared their bold Olympic dream. He'd need to be strong. He'd need to be fast. He'd need to learn quickly. And he'd need to change his name to Bruno Banini, a trendy German underwear company. If this all ended up working, maybe -- just maybe -- the underwear company would pay for all this.

The International Olympic Committee has strict rules regarding ambush marketing, including Rule 40 of the Olympic Charter, which prohibits athletes even appearing in advertising that doesn't involve Olympic sponsors. The IOC sets a period of time before and after each Games when an athlete is allowed to work with only Olympic sponsors. There are no rules about changing one's name.

"I'm an athlete and I respect the Olympics, so it's a bit hard to talk about this now, but basically, we found a loophole," said Mathias Ihle, the head of Makai's European marketing division. "We had the idea to change his name in order to promote him like any other athlete."

And so one day, at home in Tonga, the man formerly known as Fuahea Semi heard a commercial on the radio advertising tryouts to represent his home country in the Winter Olympics in luge. He decided almost immediately he had to go.

"I just thought it was something new," he said. "It looked like fun. And the chance to represent Tonga was the biggest thing to me."

Isabel Barschinski had no idea what to expect that day. A former German slider herself, she had been hired to help pick the right athlete she would help train for the operation. She wondered if anyone would even show. But sure enough, some 20 curious Tongans tried out. They were all told that if they were selected they would have to change their name. None of them left.

Instead, each of the candidates went through strength tests, speed tests and slid down a small hill on a makeshift sled with wheels.

"It was nothing," Banini said. "Maybe 10, 20 kilometers per hour."

Barschinski also interviewed each candidate, asking why they wanted to do this. Many answered honestly: They wanted the free trip to see Europe. Semi, who had dreamed of playing professional rugby as a boy, said something else: He was excited about a new challenge. And he wanted to wear his country's colors on the world stage. Barschinski was hooked.

"It was just his personality," she said. "He's humble. He's not coming to the front of the line, 'Look at me, here I am.' He would just stand there and listen all the time. You could see he was trying to learn. He was perfect."

Shortly after he was selected, Banini moved to Germany and the lessons began. The goal was to make it to Vancouver. In his first run, on a 17-turn course in Germany, he began on Turn 11. No problem. With each day, he began to move further and further up the course.

"I wanted the speed," he said.

"He wasn't bad," Barschinski said. "Within about one-two weeks, we were up starting at the top of the course."

Once in Germany, Ihle introduced Bruno Banani the underwear company to Bruno Banani the person. Banani had talked the decision to change his name over with his parents, who had no problem with it. They were more concerned with their son's ability to chase his new dream than they were what anybody wanted to call him. To them, he'd always be Fuahea. So the plan continued. Banani's passport was changed to his new name. Whenever he met someone new, he introduced himself as Bruno. All his equipment was labeled "Banani."

"It was all part of the deal," he said. "I didn't think it was that big of a deal."

I just thought it was something new. It looked like fun. And the chance to represent Tonga was the biggest thing to me.

-- Bruno Banani, formerly Fuahea Semi

"At the time, our agency was pretty young," Ihle said. "We just wanted to prove we were thinking outside of the box. And [Banani underwear} promote outside the box. They were the first to send underwear into outer space.

"They asked us, 'Is his name Bruno Banini? We showed him his passport. We told them yes."

But the more Banani's sliding improved, the more questions people started to ask. They were all given the same answer. And the passport was shown as proof. After just a year of training, Banini came within one point of qualifying for the Vancouver Olympics. But he crashed in his last attempt and ended up waking in the hospital He vowed that the dream was not dead.

When he returned to the track the next season, so, too, did the questions. But not the one Ihle says he was never asked: "Was his name always Bruno Banani?"

In 2012, the German newspaper Der Spiegel began poking around. They wanted to know more about this man from Tonga nicknamed "The Flying Coconut" who was training in their country and had built relationships with the German sliding teams. It simply seemed too good to be true. And after a little bit of digging, they found their explanation.

A headline on Feb, 3, 2012, detailed the rouse, asking: "Will Underwear Scam Kill Tongan's Olympic Dreams?"

The answer was maybe.

"The next thing you know, everyone is saying this is a hoax," Ihle said. "The American media, the Australians, they're quite cool. But to the Germans, this was an ethical thing. They did not like this at all."

"We didn't understand," said Bruno's sister, Atela. "We didn't care about the story or the underwear. What was important was that my brother had the talent to go to the Olympics."

But the media loves a juicy fraud story. And this one was too good to pass up. Almost immediately, newspapers and websites from around the world began piling on, suggesting Banini should not be allowed to compete for a spot in Sochi -- or worse yet, he should be banned from competition altogether.

German Thomas Bach, then a vice president at the IOC, called the stunt "in bad taste" and said it was a "perverse marketing idea." But the German national team and the International Federation of Luge supported Banani. And in a way, so, too, did the IOC, when nine months after the story broke, Ihle said they awarded Banani with a scholarship. And despite his criticism, Bach also conceded that should Banani qualify for the Olympics, there was nothing the IOC could do; his name had been legally changed.

[+] EnlargeBruno Banani
VICTORIA BONN-MEUSER/AFP/Getty ImagesBruno Banani is a German fashion company known for its underwear.

"It's not the name, it's the person," Ihle said. "Bruno is such a nice and humble person. He works so hard. He's so focused. This isn't some gimmick to him. And I think people understood that."

And so the dream continued. Nine months out of the year Banani spent in Germany, training. The other three he was at home with his father, sister and three brothers. His mother died in 2010.

In December 2013, the dream came true when Banani qualified to compete in Sochi. And so there he was this past Friday night, proudly walking into the Fisht Olympic Stadium with his country's red flag high held above his head.

"It was the best feeling ever," he said. "I was just overwhelmed. I don't know."

Since that moment, the messages pouring into his phone and social media accounts have not stopped. He hasn't even had time to read them all.

On Saturday, with Ihle, Barschinski, Banani's sister and his nation's spokesperson cheering him on, Banani flew down the Olympic track as fast as he possibly could. It wasn't impressive. At least not according to his competition. By the end of the night his two-run combined time of 1:47.293 placed him 33rd out of 39 sliders. But you wouldn't have known it from the smile beaming from the young man's face.

"It was amazing," he said. 'I can't believe I'm actually here."

Two more runs are set for Sunday, and Banani admits his goals are modest. He wants to finish in the top 30. This experience isn't about winning, it's about being here. And learning.

Before they all headed to Sochi, Ihle sensed that Banani wanted this to be the end. The experiment was over. The dream had been achieved. But then, in Russia, something happened. Banani held his country's flag parading into the Olympic Stadium. He posed for countless pictures in the athletes' Olympic Village. Now the decision is not so easy.

"I'm not sure what I'm going to do," Banani said. "Being away from my family for most of the year is really hard. But I also really love the sport. And I can see my improvement. It's hard. Maybe I will continue on. Maybe not. I don't know."

No matter what the decision, the new name will forever stay. Though his family and friends who have known him for years still call him Fuahea, Bruno Banani isn't going anywhere, No matter what anyone might think.

"This is the name that made history for me," he said. "And I will stay with it. The name will always be there. Whatever people want to call me, it just doesn't matter."

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