Fri, Feb 03, 2012 - Page 19 News List

Germany falls for Tongan Winter Olympics luge star

The Guardian, BERLIN

Bruno Banani of Tonga poses after his run in the men’s singles competition at the Luge World Cup in St Moritz, Switzerland, on Sunday.

Photo: EPA

They say if it sounds too good to be true it probably is. So when news surfaced in Germany of a promising young luger from the tropical islands of Tonga who bore the same name as a racy German underwear firm with a dream of sledding to victory at the Olympics, skepticism might well have been warranted.

However, the story was too delicious. Bruno Banani, 24, ostensibly the son of a coconut farmer from the South Pacific nation, was aiming to be Tonga’s first ever competitor at a Winter Olympic Games. In doing so, went the story, he was fulfilling the wish of the Tongan Princess Royal, Salote Mafile’o Pilolevu Tuita, whose life’s ambition was to see a citizen from her sun-drenched isles triumph among the ice and snow of the world’s premier cold weather sporting contest.

When Banani was unveiled to the German media, he was naturally sponsored by Bruno Banani, a purveyor of underwear from the eastern city of Chemnitz.

It was like the film Cool Runnings which was about Jamaica’s first bobsled team trying to make it to the Olympics, but now an investigation by Der Spiegel magazine has revealed that the plucky luger really was not in fact christened Bruno Banani by his mother, but by some opportunists at a marketing company in Leipzig.

According to Der Spiegel, certain elements of the Banani story are true. He is indeed 24 and until his move to Germany he was one of the 106,000 inhabitants of Tonga. He did attend a “casting” session on the islands in 2008, hosted by German luge champion Isabel Barschinski, and yes, the Princess Royal did actually dream of getting a Tongan to the Winter Olympics.

However, it’s here that the Banani myth starts to become detached from reality. It seems that the young information-technology student who was picked for luge success was actually called Fuahea Semi and was not the son of a man who farmed coconuts, but cassava.

At this point a marketing firm called Makai came into play, according to Der Spiegel. At the final selection round in Tonga, it intervened and somehow arranged for a passport to be issued for Semi in the name of Bruno Banani.

The Guardian contacted Mathias Ihle, the boss of Makai Europe, to see if everything Der Spiegel reported was true and to ask for an interview with Banani/Semi.

In an e-mailed response, Ihle said that with regret, his client would not be available for an interview.

Norbert Loch, the trainer of the German national luge squad, did not respond to inquiries.

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