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Tonga's flag-bearer Bruno Banani leads his country's contingent during the parade of nations at the opening ceremony of the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics on Feb. 7, 2014. (PHIL NOBLE/REUTERS)
Tonga's flag-bearer Bruno Banani leads his country's contingent during the parade of nations at the opening ceremony of the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics on Feb. 7, 2014. (PHIL NOBLE/REUTERS)

Hurtling down a Himalayan highway and a man named after an underwear brand: the strange journeys of Olympic lugers Add to ...

There was a sliding race Sunday here in the mountains above Sochi. But who won the men’s singles luge is far less interesting than how some of the participants got here.

Until December, no athlete from the Pacific Island of Tonga had ever qualified for the Winter Olympics. Then an ex-rugby player named Bruno Banani (more on the moniker later) cracked the top 30 in a World Cup race in Utah, and he and Tonga were off to the Sochi Games.

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That same month, India’s Shiva Keshavan was getting ready for the Winter Olympics – his fifth – by hurtling down a Himalayan highway on a rolling wooden sled, startling a flock of sheep in a video that’s become a sensation on YouTube.

The long, strange journeys of Mr. Banani and Mr. Keshavan highlight the best of the Olympics, the reason why so many people around the world tune in every few years to watch athletes competing in obscure events – like the luge – that few can fathom competing in. Their tales recall those of British ski jumper Eddie (the Eagle) Edwards and the Jamaican bobsled team, who also overcame very long odds to make their Olympic debuts in Calgary in 1988.

Mr. Banani is here, in part, because of that Jamaican squad, which was made even more famous by the 1993 Disney film Cool Runnings. The 27-year-old took up the luge after Tonga’s Princess Salote Mafile'o Pilolevu Tuita declared that her eternally warm Pacific Island nation should – to raise its international profile as Jamaica had – have a Winter Olympic star. A German marketing firm called Makai was brought in to make it happen.

Mr. Banani – then named Fuahea Semi – was one of 20 Tongan athletes who responded to a 2009 casting call. Each of them was told at the start of the tryout that the winner would have to change their name to Bruno Banani, the name of a German underwear maker that was willing to pay for the whole project in exchange. All 20 said they were fine with that, as long as they got a free trip to the Olympics out of it.

Tonga’s luge star was chosen based on a combination of factors: how they handled a wheeled wooden sled that they raced down a gentle slope, and how they handled interviews afterwards. This was a marketing effort, after all.

Mr. Semi won the race, charmed the interviewers, and became Mr. Banani. Then it was off to Germany to train with the country’s world-beating luge program.

The naming ruse was made necessary by strict IOC rules that prohibit athletes from doing any kind of advertising that doesn’t involve official Olympic sponsors. But there was and – so far – is no rule about changing one’s name. (Look out for athletes named “Pepsi” or “Mastercard” in four years’ time. The Olympics are the official turf of Visa and Coca-Cola.)

Bruno Banani, the company, is trying to capitalize on the Olympic success story it bought by launching a “Coconut Power” line of underwear, “inspired” by Tonga’s one-man luge team.

But, gimmicks aside, Mr. Banini still had to qualify for the Olympics. A fullback when he plays rugby – meaning he’s one of the skill guys, not just raw power – he took naturally to the nuances of driving a luge. He just missed qualifying for the Vancouver 2010 Olympics, despite only a year of preparation.

Then, in December, the dream came true. A 28th-place finish in a World Cup race in Park City, Utah, meant that he made the cutoff to compete in Sochi. On Sunday, he finished 32nd out of 39 racers, a long six-plus seconds back of German gold medalist Felix Loch. But Mr. Banani (he says his family and friends still call him Fuahea) was thrilled just to be in Sochi.

“For me, everything that I did, I never regret anything. Everything [was] worth it. Whatever I do, I try my best, leave my family at home and move to Germany … it’s all good with me because now I’m in the Winter Olympics,” Mr. Banani said after the race.

He described a journey that had more than a few wrong turns along the way. “Since I started doing luge I crashed a lot. One time I woke up in the hospital, and I didn’t know what happened. I always crashed – twist my ankle, break some part of my body. They always think I’m crazy because after a few days I want to get back to training.”

(The dangers of luge – which sees racers’ sleds exceed 140 kilometres an hour as they speed around a twisting ice track – were horrifically illustrated by Georgian racer Nodar Kumaritashvili’s fatal crash during a practice run in Whistler ahead of the 2010 Games.)

India’s Mr. Keshavan had the most spectacular spill of the men’s singles event on Saturday, when he briefly fell off his luge, slid alongside it for a moment, then ended up back on top of the sled after it caromed off a steep corner and back under his body. It all happened in less than a second, enabling him to finish the race. Again, see YouTube.

The 32-year-old Mr. Keshavan has been an Olympian since 1998, when he became – at the age of 16 – the youngest ever athlete, and India’s first, to qualify for the luge event in Nagano, Japan.

He spends most of the year training near his home near the Himalayas in Himachal Pradesh. His father ran an adventure travel agency in the mountains, and Mr. Keshavan first tried skiing with his friends using equipment they devised out of wood and sheet metal. The rolling luges – sleds with ball bearings affixed to the bottom – came later.

“It was a pastime for us,” he said of the improvised winter sports in the north of India. He said India, with its massive population, could produce more Olympic athletes – winter and summer – if there was larger government investment in sport. “We just need the facilities. We do have the talent.”

Mr. Keshavan’s career took another strange turn on Friday when he was one of three Indian athletes, along with cross-country skier Nadeem Iqbal and alpine slalom skier Himanshu Thakur, who took part in the opening ceremony without the honour of marching under their own flag. The Indians were forced to enter Fisht Stadium under the five-ring banner of the International Olympic Committee after the IOC suspended India’s membership in 2012 because the Indian Olympic Association had elected officials who were facing criminal corruption charges.

Speaking after his 37th place finish on Sunday, Mr. Keshavan called the opening ceremonies “really unfortunate,” the result of a stubborn standoff between the IOC and the Indian association. But he said the crowd response at the races made up for it.

“It’s amazing to come down and connect with the crowd. It’s really good. As athletes, we’ve all been training for four years, sometimes in places where you don’t have people to come watch you. Just to see the appreciation of the crowd is great.”

It’s a sentiment echoed by Mr. Banani – it’s that moment in the limelight, that feeling of accomplishment when the fans salute the athlete, wherever they finish – that spreads the Olympic dream to places like Himachal Pradesh and Tonga.

“To be honest, before I came here to Sochi I was looking back [thinking] the past five years were the hardest of my life…. I was thinking of stop[ping]. But the moment I walked into this opening ceremony and the people cheered, I think I had a second thought. So maybe I’m going to be back again.”

Follow me on Twitter: @markmackinnon