BEIJING (KXAN) — For the first time since 1998, the Winter Olympics are to be paced and paced.
Jamaica’s bobsled team is still riding the wave of Disney after the 1993 film ‘Cool Runnings’ helped propel the country’s program from nothing to a global phenomenon after a surprise qualification for the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary. The film secured corporate sponsorship of the program and infused the cash-strapped organization with much-needed resources, and it was a box office success. At the time, Disney said it was its highest-grossing live-action film, grossing over $157 million.
But if you really want to brush up on your Jamaican bobsled team’s history as the team climbs the hill at the Yanqing National Sliding Center in Beijing, don’t bother logging into your Disney+ account. John Candy and Doug E. Doug won’t be able to help you much.
The film was highly fictional, simply “inspired by” the team’s time before, during and after the 1988 Games. The team faced a mountain of adversity and doubt, of themselves and others just to qualify for the Games – that’s certainly true. But according to team members who experienced those illustrious first Olympics for the tiny Caribbean island, that’s about where the similarities ended.
They believe the film doesn’t portray them as serious athletes, but rather as comic caricatures of fun-loving Jamaicans who are just happy to be in Canada for a few weeks to race down a hill. In the 2014 documentary “Breaking the Ice”, Howard Siler, the team’s coach, said the team was “the real deal”.
“It was blood, sweat and tears,” he said. “That Jamaican bobsled team was the real thing.”
Siler, a nine-time national bobsled champion in his prime, died in 2014, but his wife told the Los Angeles Times he was not a huge fan of the film.
“There were scenes that made them cute, silly,” his wife Debra said. “He was disappointed that Disney decided to make the film kind of a comedic situation as opposed to the seriousness of their accomplishments.”
Siler also didn’t like the way Candy portrayed him, even though Candy’s character was called “Irv” in the movie. Rather than lean into the fact that Siler was an extremely accomplished bobsledder, Disney opted to cast Candy’s character on a has-beach in search of redemption after leaving the sport in disgrace.
Other crew members, like Devon Harris, choose to look on the bright side of the film.
“They took a lot of poetic license,” Harris said in the documentary, but also said the film did a good job “illustrating the spirit of the team.”
“They stretched some of the truth or made it up to make it funny,” he said.
George Fitch, a Republican politician from Virginia with ties to Jamaica through his work with the Commerce Department during the Reagan administration, helped assemble the team. In an ESPN interview before his death in 2014, Fitch called the film “an embarrassment”.
The team crashed and did not complete the four-man competition, but crossed the finish line with the sled, shaking hands with fans along the track. It was a gesture that made them heroes at home.
Even though the film was mostly fiction, it still inspires and influences bobsledders and fans today. Many Gen Xers and Millennials are familiar with Sanka’s lucky egg, practice tub bends, and the catchy phrase, “Feel the rhythm, feel the rhyme, come up, it’s the bobsled time!”
How the team was formed
The team was put together by Fitch and Kenny Barnes, a high-ranking Jamaican military officer, according to The Washington Post. Fitch looked at athletes training for the 1988 Summer Olympics, but hit a dead end, then ran newspaper ads for some kind of open trial before asking for help from Barnes. Barnes managed to convince Harris and Mike White to join the team, and then Caswell Allen, Freddie Powell, Dudley Stokes and his younger brother Chris Stokes completed the team.
The team trained at a military base in Jamaica and the sled pilot, Dudley Stokes, flew airplanes and helicopters in the military, so in a way, of course, he could steer a metal tube with sled skates on an icy path filled with curves, right?
The team practiced in Lake Placid with a borrowed sled, but then returned to Kingston, Jamaica’s capital, and practiced with a rickety cart on wheels similar to the handcarts that were popular on the ‘Isle. The country’s rich history of track and field athletes, particularly in sprints, plays very well in bobsleigh racing, especially the push start.
After competing in a Bobsleigh World Cup event in Austria and a lot of politics from Fitch, Jamaica sent their team to Calgary.
Jamaica also had a two-man bobsled team in Calgary, and that team actually finished. He placed 30th out of 40 teams.
Jamaica at the 2022 Winter Olympics
This year, Jamaicans have both men and women competing in the Olympics. Two- and four-man teams came out on top, as did Jazmine Fenlator-Victorian who rode the country’s first women’s monobob. Fenlator-Victorian was a 2014 Olympian for the United States in bobsleigh, but joined the Jamaican team thanks to the birth of her father. She was also part of a two-woman team at the 2018 Games.
NBC’s Sam Brock spent time with the team and recounted their trip to Beijing, nearly 30 years after the Jamaicans last traveled to the penultimate bobsleigh event.
Shanwayne Stephens, this year’s team driver, had an interesting training program ahead of the Games. As a Lance Corporal in the Royal Air Force, Stephens pushed a Mini Cooper around Peterborough in England where he lives. He even caught the eye of the queen.
“The fight is still the same, we still have no ice, no practice facilities,” Stephens said. “All the guys in the team feel responsible for what we’ve achieved. It’s a massive achievement.
After four practice runs, the Jamaicans are nearly two seconds behind the leaders. Competition rounds are Saturday and Sunday.