'Flying coconut' Banani set to carry Tonga's flag

MICHAEL FIELD
Last updated 14:33 06/02/2014

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A man named after a brand of men's sports underwear is set tomorrow to carry Tonga's flag at the opening ceremony at the Sochi Winter Olympics.

Labelled "the flying coconut", Bruno Banani, 26, is competing in the luge after he was headhunted in Tonga in 2008.

Then, as Fuahea Semi, son of a farmer, a computer science student and playing rugby, he had never seen snow or a luge.

On Tongatapu there isn't a slope big enough to duplicate a luge run.

But it hasn't stopped him become the 16th ranked luger in the world and qualifying for a place at Sochi.

International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach labelled the name change tasteless.

"I really think this is a perverse marketing idea."

Originally he was labelled as "coconut powered" by the Chemnitz underwear manufacturer pushing a line of "Bruno Banani" sports underwear.

A soft-spoken fellow who calls himself Sammy, he told Radio Australia  he's had a lot of support and not just from Tongans.

"I also have a lot of messages from different people around the Pacific who are very happy with what I'm doing," he says.

"I'm just trying now to be more focused in my training... because there's also a bit of pressure on me knowing that there are so many people behind me."

Although not expected to win a medal, his achievements have surprised the luge world. 

"I know the limits that I've had up until now. I still have more training to do to get more experience so that I can compete with the higher levels of athletes."

A German marketing agency recruited Banani after holding a series of try-outs at a gym next the Nuku'alofa's rugby stadium. A rough dirt luge track was also built.

The idea was to get exposure of a brand of sports underwear - a bit like calling All Black Daniel Carter after his under-pant sponsors. 

IOC objections were over-ruled when Banani was issued a Tongan passport in his new name.

Germany's luge coach and gold medallist Norbert Loch rates Banani.

"He is an ambitious athlete and no 'Eddie the Eagle' sledging." 

On his Facebook site he says he survived not making the 2010 Winter Olympics and is ready for the next.

"Carrying the flag of Tonga will be, I think ... the best moment".

He describes himself as an athlete: "I am not only a Tongan with natural talents, but also someone who wants to leave an imprint in this world with luge."

His trainer, Isabel Barschinski, says Sochi maybe Banani's last Olympics.

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"He's nine months a year not at home, the family ties are very tight. He often homesick," she told website Dorstener Zeitung.

He has done all his training in Germany, where he first saw snow, and told German television (http://www.n-tv.de/ ) he has only slowly got used to it.

"The good thing is that a couple of times a year I get to meet them in Tonga. My father is going to the Olympics, but a few brothers and sisters are trying to get to the games. 

"Let's see what happens. I think they're cheering in front of the TV in Tonga."

In Auckland the Tongan community website Kaniva Pacific yesterday said Banani is worried his sister Atela Semi, 23, is on the way to Sochi on her own. 

"I hope and pray that everything will be fine with my trip as I have not travelled to these countries before," she told the site.

She said she had to go as her brother really wanted her to watch him compete in the luge.

Her visa was approved with the help of the Tongan consulate in Auckland only hours before she left for Sochi. 

Radio New Zealand International reported Tonga has been welcomed into Sochi by a vice mayor.

The Secretary General of the Tonga Luge Association, Leafa Mataele Wawryk, told them it was an emotional experience.

"I got a bit teary to see the Tongan flag and to have the Tongan national anthem played," she said.

"We've come a long way and, again, it's so surreal. We're so proud of this young man."

The first heats in the luge men's competition are Sunday morning New Zealand time.

Tonga has competed at every Summer Olympics since 1984 but never a Winter Games. It includes one medallist among 31 Olympians, 1996 Atlanta Olympic super heavyweight boxing silver medallist Paea Wolfgramm.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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