Will Underwear Scam Kill Tongan's Olympic Dreams?

PHOTO: Bruno Banani of Tonga poses after his run during the mens single competition at the Luge World Cup in St. Moritz, Switzerland, Jan. 29, 2012.
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It was a story too good to be true -- and it wasn't. In reality, Tongan luger Bruno Banani, who supposedly shares a name with a German underwear company, was rechristened as part of a guerrilla-marketing plot. But will that now shatter his Olympic dreams?

A cold wind is blowing through the Thuringian Forest. A man stands in the snow flurries on the slope above, near the finish line of the luge track in Oberhof, a small German town known as a winter sports destination. He's wearing a black athletic outfit bearing the inscription "Tonga," while his sleeve reads "Bruno Banani" in lettering similar to that used by the German underwear brand of the same name. He has a winter hat pulled down low over his dark complexion, the words "Coconut Powered" stitched on its brim and two stray dreadlocks poking out.

In conversation, the luger from Tonga -- an island nation in the South Pacific -- tends to repeat the same phrases. He talks about getting used to European temperatures and describes himself as a "speed junkie" -- though he will admit to praying before each run down the icy track. When the conversation turns personal, or when he's confronted with too many questions -- such as ones about his name -- he backs away with the excuse that he needs to check on his sled.

However, the fact is that many people are exceedingly eager to learn the man's story. Many camera teams have turned up at luging events to hear it, and many newspapers have run it. And that's because it reads like a fairy tale.

A Story Too Good to Be (All) True

It goes like this: A shy man and son of a coconut farmer grew up in his island paradise under the name Bruno Banani. The 24-year-old supposedly shares a name by pure coincidence with the fashionable underwear brand based in the eastern German city of Chemnitz, which advertises itself as "nonconformist and undogmatic." In late 2008, Banani answered a casting call to become his nation's first luger. According to the story, Princess Salote Mafile'o Pilolevu Tuita, daughter of the late King Taufa'ahau Tupou IV, had expressed a desire to see her country of 100,000 field an athlete in the Winter Olympics.

By now, Luger Banani has garnered the support of the International Luge Federation. He lives and trains in Germany, the world's powerhouse in the sport. There, the German national team, under coach Norbert Loch, trains the young Tongan while Georg Hackl, who won the Olympic gold three times for Germany in the 1990s, offers him tips. Meanwhile, the underwear designer in Chemnitz -- impressed by the amusing coincidence of the athlete's name -- has stepped in to sponsor training for Tonga's first winter athlete.

But, of course, only half of this story is true. There was, indeed, a casting session in Tonga, hosted by Isabel Barschinski, a former luger from the German ski resort town of Oberwiesenthal. And the Princess of Tonga really did want to see her country field a winter athlete. But, as recently as late 2008, the IT student chosen to fill that role was named not Bruno Banani, but Fuahea Semi. What's more, though his father is a farmer, he grows cassava rather than coconuts.

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