Name change boosted Tonga luger's trajectory
BRUNO Banani gave up a lot - including his own name - to become the first winter Olympian from the Pacific island of Tonga.
Banani, born Fuahea Semi, comes from the tropical island kingdom where temperatures average 23 deg C.
Five years ago, the computer science student won a contest to find a luger from Tonga, a nation of 105,000.
The 26-year-old was forced to find funding to compete and improve, and turned to underwear. He took the name of a little-known brand of shorts and briefs sold by Bruno Banani Underwear GmbH from Chemnitz in eastern Germany in the process.
The athlete qualified for Sochi by finishing 28th among 42 starters at a World Cup race in Park City, Utah, in December, and wants to make the top 30 in the one-man discipline.
"To be at the Olympics is indescribable," he said. "I'm waiting for that opening ceremony to walk in with the Tongan flag."
Banani's unlikely sporting career began five years ago, when he beat 29 others in a contest organised by the Tonga Sports Association and Olympic Committee.
He now trains with the German national team.
Banani, who at the time had never seen snow, said he knew nothing about luge when he heard about his country's campaign on the radio. "They said it's dangerous and fast," he said. "That's why I wanted to try it. I love speed."
Until that point, his sporting life had centred around rugby, volleyball and long-distance running.
Bruno Banani Underwear GmbH, which employs about 110 people, expects the athlete to spur sales to more than 100 million euros (S$172 million) this year, compared with 96.5 million euros last year.
It was Makai Europe GmbH, a marketing firm advising Tonga, that suggested Banani change his name to find a sponsor. The athlete discussed the idea with his family, who agreed he should do so.
Now that he is on the cusp of his first Games, Banani said: "To be at the Olympics is a big thing, but the actual race is another story. I can't wait."