Bobsled

Justin Piercy - Friday Jan. 24, 2014 12:26 ET

Infamous Winter Olympians: Jamaican bobsled team

Finding the truth behind 'Cool Runnings'

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The Jamaican bobsled team in action at the Calgary Olympics in 1988. (File/Getty Images)

The Olympic Games have always been a setting for inspirational acts of athleticism, where sacrifice and hard work are the norm. But there are a few Winter Olympians that have set themselves apart from their fellow athletes through less-traditional means. The 1988 Jamaican bobsleigh team are a few of those rare individuals, a team that fascinated the world by competing in a sport that was quite literally out of their element.

Two decades after it was released, the feature Cool Runnings seems to have replaced the real story about four Jamaicans who dared to challenge a sport and climate that were completely foreign to them.

Let’s decipher the true story of the first Olympic Jamaican bobsled team by reviewing the (sometimes glaring) differences between what actually happened and the ‘based on a true story’ version:

  • First, forget about Sanka and the egg. The men that actually competed at the Calgary Games were Dudley ‘Tal’ Stokes, Chris Stokes, Devon Harris, Frederick Powell and Michael White. Unlike the movie, the team was not actually composed of professional Jamaican sprinters, but of professional Jamaican soldiers. 

“I got into bobsledding because I was told to go," Stokes, the team captain, said during an ‘Ask Me Anything’ (AMA) session on Reddit on Oct. 17. "I was in the Army at the time. The Colonel made the suggestion to me and because I was a Captain, you do as your [sic] told and obey orders.

“There were two Americans, George Finch and William Maloney, who were big into pushcart racing and thought it translated well to bobsledding. You mix that with the Jamaican athleticism and they thought it could work with some of our track athletes.

“They couldn't get anyone to actually do the sport, so they went to the Army and my Colonel. So that's how I became involved in it. Once there, I was hooked.” 

  • John Candy didn’t exist. Well, I mean his character in the movie, the disgraced American coach, didn't exist. That was a total fabrication. The team was guided and coached not by one person, but more of a group, including the men Stokes mentioned and Sepp Haidacher, of Austria.
  • The other bobsleigh squads did not shun the Jamaican team. In fact, many were very helpful by offering advice, guidance or even lending them equipment (including a sled). Aside from a kissing booth, the motion picture ignored the need for sponsors to help the team get to the Games in Calgary:

All of these (real) efforts by the team, their coaches, sponsors, and fellow bobsled teams led to this performance at the 1988 Games, which you can watch by clicking here.

The end result of the Jamaican foray into the world of bobsled has been two-fold – the myth of Cool Runnings, versus the actual growth of the sport in the island nation. It has helped produce an Olympic medal in the sport, albeit for a Canadian.

Lascelles Brown grew up in Jamaica and even competed for the country before he became a Canadian citizen in 2005. He teamed up with Lyndon Rush and became the first Jamaican-born person to win a medal in the Winter Olympics when he won silver in the two-man event in 2006 in Turin:

As for the original Jamaican bobsled team members, some are still involved with the bobsled program, or making the rounds as motivational speakers, like Harris here: 

 

The next chapter may be written in Sochi.

Jamaica secured a spot in the two-man event at the 2014 Winter Games when Winston Watts and Marvin Dixon steered their sled to a clean run in St. Moritz, Switzerland on Saturday.

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