Fans of the movie Cool Runnings, where a Jamaican bobsleigh team triumph over adversity, will be delighted with its real-life reincarnation at this year’s Sochi winter Olympics. In similar vein, a lone luge athlete from Tonga, yes, that is correct, a luge athlete from Tonga; will be competing in a sport he has had little natural preparation for growing up.
Bruno Banani is the name of this cool underdog, and if his name sounds a little too alliterative and awesome, it is for good reason. It is not his real name. It is the name of a German underwear company.
Bruno Banani makes undergarments for the masculine marketplace, and it has a history of impressive marketing exploits. It got Russian astronauts to wear its briefs in space, it has sent them underwater to the Bermuda Triangle, and now, it is sending its brand-new brand ambassador down an icy slope in Russia, head first. This is the son of a Tongan coconut farmer who grew up in a place where it never snows. He is now the Tongan representative at the Sochi Olympic Games.
With names like Rusty Iron, Blockbuster and Booty Bass, Bruno Banani make macho statements with their essential items of clothing, and by getting the Tongan athlete to change his name, they are hoping to create a whole new concept in advertising. In 2002 they put the underpants in a particle accelerator, earning them the title of the “fastest underpants in the world.” Bruno Banani, the luger, not the underpants, was formerly known as Fuahea Semi. He now hopes to be the faster luger in the world.
When Fuahea was still Fuahea, he was sat at home one day in Tonga, in the steamy tropical heat which never drops much below 60 degrees, when he heard something on the radio. There was a national search being announced for Tonga’s first winter Olympian. (Readers were previously warned this story bore a striking resemblance to Cool Runnings.) Fuahea, as he then was, went to the try-outs, got selected, and the rest is history; or it might be. Bruno Banani (the underwear company) are certainly hoping that will be the case. As is Bruno Banani, the Tongan athlete, formerly known as Fuahea.
So how did he get from try-out to sponsored competitor? Well, like all the best stories, a princess is involved. Princess Salote Mafile’o Pilolevu Tuita, a Tongan royal, dearly wished to see somebody from her own beloved country competing in the winter Olympics. As is often the way with princesses, her wish was somebody’s command.
That somebody was a company called Makai, a global pioneer in “experiential marketing” who had connections with her highness. Makai had a mission to prove how creative they could be. When Fuahea won the try-outs (riding a sled down a track the length of the average driveway) they hopped in and told him he would need a sponsor. They had European offices near the Bruno Banani people in Germany and they liked their style. So they approached them. The name change idea followed next. This was all back in 2008. The Bruno Banani guys jumped at the radical concept, “We thought it was really cool and a little bit funny,” said Jay Jassner, the boss. The deed was done and Fuahea got a new passport.
Not everyone has been impressed with this marriage of aspirant outsider with brute capitalism. The president of the International Olympic Committee, Thomas Bach, called it a “perverse marketing idea,” but Matthias Ihle, from Makai, told him it was nothing unusual for entertainers and athletes to change their names. It happened all the time. Likewise, many brands are endorsed by famed sports stars. This was just a twist on the usual way of going about it.
Bruno Banani, the man, is a naturally humble and trusting person, and as such, he has been accepted unconditionally into the community of athletes. He had to consult with his family before the name change, but once they were fine with it, he became fully aware of how fortunate and exciting his life had become. Before all this, before being named after a brand of underpants and being a winter sports athlete, he was just another Tongan kid studying computer sciences and playing rugby with his mates at the weekends.
He has since moved to Germany where he is trained by a German coach, Isabel Barschinski. In 2010, he qualified for Vancouver but crashed there and had to withdraw. It was Park City, Utah, where he made it through to the Sochi games, finishing 28th out of 42. A lover of speed, Banani has compared the pedestrian Tongan speed limit, 70 km per hour, to his hopes for the Olympics. He is sure he can go a whole lot faster than that.
He will take his first run on Saturday. His sister is flying out from Tonga to watch. Afterwards, whatever happens, he will stay to lap up the snowy atmosphere and the excitement of the games, and in the future, he would like to carry on, but it will depend on the sponsorship continuing. If it does not, he will probably go back to his island home and find a job in computing. He won’t go back to being Fuahea though. He is Bruno Banani now, a name he sincerely trusts will go down in Tongan history as the first ever winter Olympian, and a man who made his country proud. Whilst wearing his own name on the waistband of his underwear. No one else can beat that.
The field is now wide open for Calvin Klein, Victoria Secret, and any other brand name (not necessarily underwear related) to sign up for Olympic glory. Competitors will be hard pressed though to beat the feel-good Cool Runnings factor of the Tongan competing for real at Sochi. The princess must be right royally pleased.
By Kate Henderson