The Tongan Olympic Luger Who Turned Out To Be An Underwear Marketing Scam

Imagine if the events surrounding 1988 Jamaican bobsled team that inspired the film Cool Runnings happened today, in the age of the internet and 24-hour sports coverage. Now imagine one of those athletes, by pure chance, had been named Calvin Klein. And after his emergence on the international scene, he became a spokesman for the manufacturer—the perfect convergence of media hype and corporate synergy.

Then imagine if, just before the Olympics, it turned out Calvin Klein the bobsledder wasn't real, and had been an invention of Calvin Klein the brand.

Let's start at the beginning. The actual, true beginning, because the official biography of one Bruno Banani is at best a lie and at worst identity fraud perpetrated on an international level. In 2008, Princess Salote of Tonga put out a call to her island nation of 103,000, looking for at least one Winter Olympian to represent the country. Banani, a 21-year-old IT student who thought it would be fun to be a luger, answered the call, and for the past few years has been living and training with the German national team, with an eye on 2014.

Banani would have been enough of a media sensation without his name, because nothing sets off the Major Motion Picture bells like a dark-skinned athlete from a tropical clime. A young man who had never seen snow in his life, now in line to be his country's first Winter Olympian. That's gold enough, but...his name.

The Tongan Olympic Luger Who Turned Out To Be An Underwear Marketing Scam

Bruno Banani also happens to be the name of an underwear company in Germany. Founded in 2003 and known for its edgy advertising, the brand quickly seized on the young luger's attention. They stepped in to cover the costs of Banani's training; they emblazoned his racing suit with their distinctive typeface; the launched an entire line around of him, called "Coconut Powered," because Banani was supposed to be the son of a humble coconut farmer. It was perhaps the greatest stroke of luck possible for a small company still trying to make its name.

This week, the Luge World Championship begin. Coincidentally, they'll take place in Germany. Also coincidentally, Bruno Banani the underwear company is one of the event's main sponsors. In the German press, Brunomania was peaking. Then Der Spiegel became the first to actually look into his story.

They found that Bruno Banani was nothing but an advertising creation. California-based guerilla marketers Makai, who had an in with the Tongan royal family, plucked a young man from obscurity and gave him a new identity. Fuahea Semi was his name, but somewhere between volunteering for his country and moving to Germany, he received a new Tongan passport and birth certificate, in the name of "Bruno Banani." All, reportedly at the doing of Makai.

Even the tiny details of his life story had been altered to make him more universally marketable. Fuahea Semi has indeed grown up the son of a farmer, but a farmer of cassava. This was changed to coconuts, reportedly because some Germans wouldn't know was cassava was.

Makai claims that Bruno Banani the underwear maker wasn't aware of the scheme, and the company denies it as well. Semi/Banani remains taciturn:

In conversation, the luger from Tonga 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.

One can't help but feel bad for Banani, who comes across as something as a pawn. A 24-year-old kid snatched from his home and set up as a curio in a luge-mad country and a hero to his own nation, and he is a legitimate athlete. Despite the identity fraud, he has qualified and placed in international competitions on his own merits. Now, despite his performance at this week's World Championships, he'll never be more than a hoax, even though his real story is just as inspiring. I guess a young man from a tropical nation holding his own as he hurtles down a mountain at 80 mph isn't good enough, if he can't move underwear.

Will Underwear Scam Kill Tongan's Olympic Dreams? [Der Spiegel]