Bruno Banani: The luger, gimmick

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.

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."

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