Leadership

Cool Runnings, Revisited: How Associations Helped Buoy the Jamaican Bobsled Team

By / Feb 8, 2018 Jamaica's bobsled team, shown competing in at the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Russia. (Sander van Ginkel/Wikimedia Commons)

Three decades ago, Jamaica made waves after sporting a bobsled team at the Winter Olympics. They got there then with some help from associations, and the country has a women’s team hitting South Korea this year.

Sure, the 2018 Winter Olympics are about to get underway in Pyeongchang, South Korea, and they might generate some great stories, but their stories might not be as unique as that of the Jamaican bobsled team.

Three decades ago, an unlikely team of bobsledders from a country with a decidedly non-wintry climate became a sensation at the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary, Alberta. The team’s story then became the basis for the popular Disney film Cool Runnings in 1993. And the team still has a presence in Jamaica today. In fact, the country is sending its first women’s bobsled team to South Korea this year. (The men’s team, alas, didn’t qualify this time around.)

How Associations Helped in 1988

Of course, the 1988 team wouldn’t have gotten to Calgary without a whole lot of support from associations. The idea formulated from the brain of Virginia businessman George Fitch, who saw the potential for the country’s sprinters to translate their skills to bobsledding. In a 1988 interview with the South Florida Sun Sentinel, Fitch noted that the Pushcart Derby, an annual sporting event in Jamaica, shared many parallels with bobsledding.

“When you talk about a Jamaican bobsled team, people say you’ve been out in the sun too long, but the sprinter is the type of athlete best-suited for the sport,” he noted.

Of course, his idea, said to come after “one too many drinks at a Kingston bar,” needed outside support to become a reality. Fitch organized the team, which he funded along with the Jamaica Tourist Board. The Jamaica Olympic Association eventually offered the sport its seal of approval, leading to the creation of the Jamaica Bobsleigh Federation, which Fitch headed.

The team received support from the U.S. Bobsled Association, which offered a bobsled fitness test to the athletes, and that led to the creation of the first five-man team, which included Caswell Allen, Devon Harris, Frederick Powell, Dudley Stokes, and Michael White.

Despite having to practice in makeshift settings such as grass and concrete, the team actually qualified for the Olympics, where the story grabbed a lot of attention.

Of course, if you’ve seen Cool Runnings, you know the best part of this story involved the four-man run with Harris, White, Stokes and Stokes’ brother, Chris. The team decided to compete in the four-man run only days before the event, bringing Chris onto the team simply because he was there. The run, which started impressively, went off the rails after the team crashed. While the team was disqualified, the group walked to the finish line anyway, creating the emotional moment that defined Cool Runnings.

The moment was an emotional peak in real life as well.

“That (crash) was the lowest point of the experience at that moment, and then they just lifted us up again,” Harris said of the crowd during an interview with NBC’s Today. “They buoyed us.”

From Jamaica to Pyeongchang

While Jamaicans have yet to medal in bobsledding, they’re still very much at it—though the challenges of getting to Pyeongchang haven’t been easy to overcome. Carrie Russell, a member of the women’s team that is competing this year, recently noted in an interview with McClatchy that the Jamaica Bobsleigh Federation struggled to cover the team’s costs because of lack of corporate support. The team has also struggled with perception issues. But that hasn’t dampened its resolve.

“We’re trying to change that narrative,” Russell said. “We know that we’re one of the best on the hill, and we hope that we can optimize our potential when it counts in Pyeongchang.”

Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is the social media journalist for Associations Now, a former newspaper guy, and a man who is dangerous when armed with a good pun. More »

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