Irie Ice: Jamaican bobsledding

It’s a quarter-century since a Jamaican bobsled team unexpectedly took the Winter Olympics by storm. James Ferguson recounts the tale

Illustration by Rohan Mitchell

As the warm glow of success surrounding the recent athletic exploits of Usain Bolt, Yohan Blake, Shelley-Ann Fraser-Pryce et al gradually fades, it is a good moment to recall another Jamaican triumph in the field of Olympic endeavour. This was perhaps not triumph in the sense that Bolt and his compatriots emphatically enjoyed in London. At the 2012 Olympics, they showed they were simply the best, the fastest, and — most gratifyingly — the coolest sprinters in the world. An older victory was more of the moral type, an expression of humility and courage, laced with an endearingly self-deprecating sense of irony.

Everybody loves an underdog, and sports fans particularly love individuals who defy the odds and struggle against their own limitations. What could be more attractive, then, than the idea of a team from a Caribbean island competing in a winter sports event? Who could ever have dreamed of entering Jamaicans into the bobsled competition, a contest in which, according to the ever-reliable Wikipedia, “teams of two or four make timed runs down narrow, twisting, banked, iced tracks in a gravity-powered sled”? There has never been snow or ice in Jamaica. The concept of winter is alien to a tropical climate. The idea of a Jamaican bobsled team was thus brilliantly counterintuitive and bizarre.

The story of the events that culminated twenty-five years ago, at XVth Olympic Winter Games in Calgary, Canada, is told on the website of the Jamaica Bobsleigh Team. It started — as most crazy ideas do — on a night out when two young American businessmen based in Kingston discussed the similarity between bobsledding and a particular local contest called the Pushcart Derby, in which the ubiquitous homemade Jamaican street vendor’s cart is transformed into a racing vehicle that can allegedly reach sixty miles per hour (downhill). Snow might be in short supply, they reasoned, but Jamaican athletic prowess and the pushcart tradition pointed towards an unlikely new national sport.

With the backing of the Jamaica Olympic Association, one of the businessmen, George Fitch, began to put his plan into action in autumn 1987. He first needed to recruit some athletes, but was discouraged at a meeting with a group of hopefuls. Fitch turned the lights off to show a video on bobsledding — including several alarming crashes — only to find the room almost empty when the lights came back on. But help was at hand in the form of the Jamaica Defence Force, out of whose stout-hearted ranks came the first three volunteers to respond to the promise of “dangerous and rigorous trials”: Dudley Stokes, Devon Harris, and Michael White. Three more athletes were to join in due course.

Training in Jamaica initially consisted of building up stamina, but then due to Fitch’s largesse and support from the Jamaica Tourist Board the team was able to experience real winter conditions at Lake Placid, New York, and in Austria. They also hired an Austrian coach. Yet, for all the good news, there was also bad. The team had access only to substandard sleds and other equipment, and crashed too often. Worse, the Fédération International de Bobsleigh et de Tobogganing seemed unamused by what it took to be a joke in poor taste, and declined to recognise the Jamaican team.

Eventually perseverance paid off, as the newly formed Jamaica Bobsleigh Federation managed to enter both a two-man and a four-man team in the forthcoming Calgary Olympics, to be held in February 1988. By now the American media had got hold of the story, and were creating a storm of publicity — not all of it positive. A sort of cult following developed, fuelled by stereotypes of rum, reggae, and Rastafari, while in Jamaica genuine enthusiasm escalated as the Olympics approached. As for the team, they were focused on their performance — if not on winning, then on avoiding a humiliating crash.

The Games arrived and the two-man event, featuring Stokes and White, passed uneventfully and unsuccessfully, the Jamaicans finishing thirty-fifth after four runs. As the media storm continued to rage and the Jamaicans remained the darlings of the press, the team prepared for the four-man event — and then disaster struck. Caswell Allen slipped on the ice and injured himself. With their entry in jeopardy, captain Dudley Stokes suggested that his brother Chris, in Calgary to cheer on the team, be drafted in. With this patched-up team, the Jamaicans were ready for the four-man event a mere three days later.

If this story seems familiar, it may be because you have seen the 1993 film Cool Runnings, loosely based on events at Calgary and before. The film’s dramatic climax centres on the four-man event, and uses footage from what actually happened (which can also be viewed on YouTube). In the first run the sled’s push bar collapsed, and driver Dudley Stokes only just managed to jump into the accelerating vehicle. The second run was little better, and at the end of the first day the Jamaicans were at the bottom of the pile. Even now, though, they were not prepared to be the laughing stocks of the Olympics. If the idea of a Jamaican bobsled team had at first appeared funny, they were now determined to do their best.

Day two started with a further setback, as Stokes injured his shoulder in a fall. Then in the first run the sled raced down the hill, amazingly recording the seventh fastest time in the Olympics that year. As it careered round the track its speed built up further and further and the sled became increasingly unstable. The TV commentator sensed imminent disaster, and he was right. “There was simply no wall left,” recalled Devon Harris, “and there was only one thing left for us to do. Crash.” The sled, travelling at eighty-five miles per hour, flipped over with its crew underneath. For several hundred yards it carried on, slowly grinding to a halt. There was a moment of ugly suspense while paramedics ran to the overturned sled, yet miraculously nobody was hurt. As the crew got to their feet they pushed the sled over the finishing line. They even had time to smile and shake hands with spectators as they walked to the end of the course.

It was the end of their Olympics, but by no means the end of the Jamaican bobsled cult. Cool Runnings brought an engaging, if inaccurate, version of the story to millions, while Jamaicans competed in the 1992 and 1994 Winter Olympics, finishing fourteenth in the latter, ahead of the United States and Russia. In their own way — as much, perhaps, as Bolt and the others — the trailblazing Jamaicans had exemplified the Olympian ethos and enthralled the world with their courage and good humour.