Throwback: The Jamaican bobsleigh team and the birth of ‘Cool Runnings’

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February 27-28, 1988 (over two days of competition)

The 1993 film Cool Runnings was a massive success at the box office, but took a number of liberties when it came to telling the full story of the 1988 Jamaican bobsleigh team. As the 30-year anniversary of the team’s debut at the Calgary Olympics approaches, here’s the full background on how four novice riders from a Caribbean country ended up competing in the biggest cold-weather competition in the world.

The idea for a Jamaican bobsleigh team began in the summer of 1987, when George Fitch, a former Commercial Attache for the American embassy in Kingston, returned to Jamaica for a wedding and mentioned to Jamaican military officer and former soccer player Ken Barnes that the athletes in Jamaica should be talented enough to compete in any Olympic sport. After watching the country’s annual push cart derby in the Blue Mountains, Fitch figured that the nation’s depth of sprinting talent would translate well to bobsleigh.

With elite Jamaican sprinters training for the upcoming Summer Games in Seoul, Fitch didn’t find too many willing participants for the experiment there. He was able to get a major from the Jamaica Defence Force interested, who recommended two of the military’s top runners – Mike White and Devon Harris – as well as a helicopter pilot – Dudley Stokes – who could handle the steering of the sled.

Fitch used his own money to train the team, which would eventually add two more members and former American bobsleigh athlete Howard Siler as coach. They went to Austria to take part in a World Cup race in order to qualify for Calgary and while the IOC still tried to disqualify the team shortly before the Olympics, various luminaries, including Prince Albert of Monaco, stepped in to champion their participation.

The team arrived in Canada with plans to only compete in the two-man competition but after Stokes and White placed 30th in that event (beating 10 teams), the full team decided they wanted to try the four man discipline later in the week. They ended up raising money (mostly via T-shirt sales) to buy a four-man sled from the Canadian team and managed to draw 40,000 fans to the event.

Despite only having practiced the four-man a few times a month earlier (and never having raced in the discipline), the Jamaicans hit the wall at the ninth corner of the course and flipped the sled. After pushing their sled to the finish line, the disappointed team members waved to the crowd and shook hands with a number of fans before leaving the track, assuming the story was over.

Then Hollywood called.

About one percent is true,” Fitch told ESPN.com in 2014. “What is fact is the crash, everything else is fiction. This ‘feel the rhythm, feel the rhyme, it’s Jamaica bobsled time’, that was strictly Hollywood.”

Harris seemed to embrace the movie a bit more.

“It immortalised our team,” he said in the same interview.. “It’s 2014 and it has allowed two more generations to become intimate with our story. It is a comedy and they took a lot of poetic licence, but that’s how Hollywood is.”

Then a member of the Jamaican Defence Force, the advert he saw called for prospective competitors to “undergo rigorous and dangerous training” to be part of the Jamaican team. He initially laughed off the idea but was persuaded and clocked the fastest times in the try-outs.

Fitch spent £56,000 of his own money to fund the team to Calgary, and Harris travelled to Canada with team-mates Dudley Stokes, Michael White, Freddie Powell and Caswell Allen.

Coached in the bob by Howard Siler, a former World Championships medallist in the sport turned coach, amazingly, Fitch raised £15,000 in T-shirts made by his wife to buy a four-man sled from the Canadian team.

Word spread and some 40,000 people came to see their third heat in which they got off to a flier before crashing dramatically. But they were all unscathed and got up to wave at the spectators, further adding to their Olympic folklore. They eventually pushed their sled to the finish.

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