Sochi 2014: Luge hopeful qualifies as Tonga's first winter Olympian

WELLINGTON (AFP) - Tonga's Bruno Banani has qualified as the Pacific nation's first winter Olympian, the International Luge Federation (FIL) said on Tuesday, in an achievement every bit as remarkable as Jamaica's famous bob-sleigh team.

Banani, who hails from a tropical archipelago famed for its sunshine and white sandy beaches, will head for the frigid Russian resort of Sochi next year after finishing 28th out of 42 starters at a World Cup meet in Park City, Utah, comfortably making the top 38 cut-off needed to qualify, the FIL said.

"The athlete from Tonga has achieved all the qualification rules," the federation told AFP in a statement.

The luge, where competitors lie supine on a sleigh and barrel down an icy ditch at speeds of up to 140kmh, is virtually unknown in Tonga where the mean annual temperature ranges from 23 to 28 deg C.

Banani, 25, had an unlikely introduction to the activity when he was plucked from obscurity in 2008 and coaxed into taking up luge as part of a guerilla marketing campaign.

At the time, he was an information technology student named Fuahea Semi whose sporting passion, like most in Tonga, was rugby union.

A marketing company persuaded him to change his name to Bruno Banani, which is the name of a German underwear manufacturer, and become part of the luge circuit as a publicity stunt.

The similarity in names was passed off as a coincidence and, after undergoing training in Germany, Banani began appearing at luge events, wearing the company's gear with a logo reading "coconut powered".

The ploy was exposed by Germany's "Der Spiegel" in February 2012 after suspicions were raised by the naming coincidence and the media-shy Banani's reluctance to answer questions about his background.

Thomas Bach, now the International Olympic Committee (IOC) president, said at the time that it was a "perverse" marketing idea.

"It is of bad taste to change your name to that of a sponsor. That is too much for me. This has nothing to do with proper marketing," he told German radio.

The inspiration for the stunt was reportedly the unfancied Jamaican bob-sleigh team that defied the odds to compete at the 1988 Calgary Olympics, depicted in the 1993 Hollywood comedy Cool Runnings.

However, by the time the deception was revealed, the athlete's name had been officially changed to Banani and he has competed using it for several years, meaning the IOC may be powerless to counter the ambush marketing.

The FIL said the issue of what name Banani used at Sochi was in the hands of the IOC.

Regardless of the marketing intentions behind his career, Banani's manager Mathias Ihle said the athlete - who could not be contacted for this article - was now viewed as a genuine competitor by his fellow lugers.

"With Bruno, Tonga has an outstanding personality as an ambassador of the kingdom of Tonga," he said in a statement released by the Tonga Olympic Committee. "He managed to become an accepted member of the international luge family."

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.