Tongan luger changed name to underwear company for Olympic funding, sparked controversy

Greg Wyshynski
Fourth-Place Medal
Bruno Banani in Sochi

SOCHI, Russia -- Who is Bruno Banani?

As of three years ago, he was the son of a coconut farmer who, despite living in balmy snow-free Tonga, dreamed of competing in the luge to impress the Royal Princess of Tonga and become the nation’s first Winter Olympian. In an amazing coincidence, he shared the same name as a German underwear company, which decided to sponsor his career and fund his training for the 2014 Sochi Games.

Who is Fuahea Semi?

Well, that’s where things got complicated. Fuahea Semi is the birth name of Bruno Banani, and in 2011 his bizarre tale of assumed identity rocked the luge community.

[ Related: Lugers take 1st Sochi Olympic training runs ]

According to the German magazine Der Spiegel, a California-based marketing firm called Makai helped hold a casting call in 2008 to find the first Winter Olympian for Tonga, at the request of the royal princess. Semi answered the call; he was an athlete who loved rugby and running, but had never seen snow before, let alone have ridden the luge.

But the event’s blazing fast speed intrigued him, so he signed up.

Makai liked what they saw in Semi, and went to the Tongan government with a plan: Change Semi’s name to Bruno Banani as a marketing ploy, and hope that it attracts sponsorship of the athlete.

The Tongan government agreed to issue a new passport and birth certificate to Semi, changing his name to that of the underwear maker.

Makai’s next step? Getting the company Bruno Banani to back the luger Bruno Banani.

The marketing firm had done all of this to show its ingenuity, and luckily the German underwear maker was impressed. It chose to financially support the luger’s Olympic bid, and even brought him to live in Germany and train with some of the world’s best in the event.

[ Related: In Olympic luge, it's Germany, and everyone else ]

That’s when the elaborate backstory took shape. Instead of being chosen by the Tongan government in a casting call, Banani would take on the luge to win the hand of a princess. Instead of growing cassava, Banani’s father would be a coconut farmer and use the catchphrase "coconut power!"; as coincidence would have it, the underwear maker that shared his name was releasing a “coconut power” line of clothing, too.

When the Vancouver Sun exposed him in 2011, the IOC called the marketing ploy “a perverse marketing idea."

Banani was embarrassed, as was Tonga.

But two years later, Fuahea Semi legally changed his name to Bruno Banani and continued his training. Now 26, his outrageous story -- seriously, if this isn't "Cool Runnings 2", what is? -- has led him to the Olympics in Sochi, where he will compete in the luge.

“To be at the Olympics is indescribable,” he said to Bloomberg News last month. “I’m waiting for that opening ceremony to walk in with the Tongan flag.”

That he’s allowed to compete may be a surprise to some. The IOC is notorious for its crackdown on non-affiliated sponsors at the Games, tightly managing the brands that pay for exposure. Bruno Banani is not an Olympic sponsor, but Bruno Banani is an Olympic athlete that they sponsor.

But this isn't an athlete wearing their own brand of gear, or drinking the wrong brand of beverage. Bruno Banani is his legal name, including on his passport, and there’s no IOC regulation that restricts it. It’s one of the most elaborate and bizarre exposures of a loophole in sports history, but Bruno Banani took advantage of it.

So, attention, Olympians: The floodgates are open. What events will “Calvin Klein”, “Tommy Hilfiger” and “Victoria Secret” take part in during the 2018 Games?