“Feel the Rhythm! Feel the Rhyme! Get on up, it’s bobsled time!”
The famous lyrics from Cool Runnings, the feel good 1993 movie about the exploits of the Jamaican bobsleigh team at the Calgary 1988 Winter Olympics, have inspired athletes across the world to give bobsleigh a try over the past two decades.
While the film “wasn’t a documentary,” as the original four-man team likes to put it, it did depict the spirit of the team, the defiance of the underdogs competing at the Olympics after just 3 months training, and the mix of buoyant enthusiasm and terror at the prospect of hurtling down an ice chute at 90 miles per hour.
“The first time I got into a bobsleigh was October 1987,” recalled Devon Harris, one of the team’s pushers in the 1988 Games, in an interview with VICE Sports.
“The experience was terrifying. I was crawling in a sled behind a guy who had never driven one before, and there was no guarantee I was going to be alive at the end of it all. I remember resigning myself, saying, ‘Hey, if I die, I die, but I’m going.’ But by the third run in that session, I was thoroughly hooked. Still scared to death, but hooked.”
Thirty years later, Jamaica has sent its first women’s bobsleigh team to the PyeongChang 2018 Olympics, and after a string of top ten World Cup finishes, Jazmine Fenlator-Victorian, Carrie Russell and Audra Segree have a genuine shot at a medal in South Korea. They would not even be here if it were not for the original "Cool Runnings" team, who recruited them to the national squad, and have largely funded their training and competition schedule through business endeavors.
A medal would be a remarkable legacy for a project that began with a drunken dare in a Jamaican bar, back in 1987. The story goes that American businessman George Fitch was watching a local pushcart derby in Jamaica with a friend, and observed that it looked remarkably similar to bobsleigh, two guys going down a mountain, just without the ice.
“Later that day, I think they’d probably had one too many drinks,” Harris said. “They came up with this hare-brained idea to start a bobsleigh team, George was dared to do it, and here we are.”
At the time Harris, an 800m runner who had tried and failed to qualify for the 1984 Summer Olympics, was a lieutenant in the Jamaica Defence Force. When the idea was first pitched to the squadron, he was far from enthusiastic.
“For me personally, nobody was ever gonna get me to go on one of those things,” he remembered. “I thought the whole concept of bobsleigh was just one of the most ridiculous ideas ever conceived by man.”
But Harris was left without a choice when his commanding officer ordered him to go to the upcoming team trials—a mix of speed and explosiveness tests. “There’s a philosophy in the army that says that officers must always participate,” Harris explained. “And so he ‘suggested’ that I go. Of course it wasn’t really a suggestion, I couldn’t say no, but the funny thing is he never expected me to make the team. It was just about participating. But then I kind of mucked it up for him because I made the team. He wasn’t counting on that bit.”
Harris was joined by helicopter pilot Dudley Stokes, who steered the sled, and fellow army members Michael White and Freddy Powell. As complete novices to the sport, they had already crashed six times in the lead-up to the Games, racing on spare sleds borrowed from other countries.
“When you crash there’s a moment where it’s like you’re going in slow motion,” Harris remembered. “It’s all happening in a split second, but you feel the sled leave the ice, twist, and then your head hits the ice and everything speeds up again. You hear the horrible sound of the sled scraping along the ice, you see flashes of white going by, and then there’s this awful smell of burning fiberglass. And there’s absolutely nothing you can do except just hold on. Then 15 seconds later, which feels like 15 minutes, it’s over and you go, ‘Ok, I’m alive!’ And then, ‘Lets go back to the top, lets do it again.’”
When the Olympics arrived, the Jamaican team was such a novelty that most of their fellow competitors did not even recognize them, having never seen them in an official race before. Harris remembers actually standing behind the Switzerland and Australian teams at the start line as they prepared to race, looking for last minute tips. “We were still in learning mode so we watched as many teams as we could, just trying to pick up something, anything,” he said.
Ultimately, as famously depicted in Cool Runnings, they lost control of the sled and crashed during their final run, meaning they did not officially finish at the Games. But unlike in the movie, where the team triumphantly walk off the track carrying their mangled sled above their heads, the mood at the time was one of utter dejection.
“That was the low point of the experience,” Harris said. “We had failed, we had disappointed an entire country and validated the criticisms of all those people who felt we had no business being there. So while we always intended to come back, that crash just solidified our determination.”
And return they did. Harris went on to compete in the 1992 and 1998 Olympics finishing 35th and 29th in the two-man bobsleigh while Stokes also became a three-time Olympian. Their exploits in 1988 also left a permanent Winter Olympic legacy known unofficially as the "Jamaica rule," whereby certain qualification criteria were required for all countries wanting to compete in bobsleigh at the Games, instead of just being able to rock up.
But while Cool Runnings introduced many young Jamaicans to the idea of bobsleigh—Lascelles Brown, who competed for Jamaica in the two-man event at the 2002 Olympics and went on to win silver and bronze medals for Canada in the 2006 and 2010 Olympics, first heard about the sport through the movie—it has not aided the team financially.
“One of the issues has been that while the movie is incredibly popular internationally, here in Jamaica it’s not a spot that people can necessarily fathom because we have no ice here,” Fenlater-Victorian said in an interview with VICE Sports. “But that legacy of the original team is still huge. Thirty years after they raced, Jamaica will now be airing the PyeongChang Olympics on national television for the first time so people will be able to watch their bobsleigh team compete.”
While Finch funded the Jamaican bobsleigh team in 1988, funding for subsequent Games has been on...thin ice. With few sponsors showing interest, despite the overwhelming success of the film, Jamaican teams have always had to scrape by on backing from a handful of companies, and in recent years, private funding from the original team members.
Harris estimates that a bobsleigh program competitive with the best nations in the world costs about one million dollars per year. Fenlator-Victorian, Russell, and Segree train and compete on a comparatively minuscule budget of less than $150,000, making their competitiveness at the highest level remarkable.
“Bobsleigh is one of the most expensive Olympic sports second only to equestrian, and that’s only because we don’t have to feed our sleds,” Fenlater-Victorian said. “A sled costs $100,000, runners are $60,000, and one hour of training time at a track facility is usually $250, and that all adds up for a small nation trying to be competitive in something. It was hard for us even to fly home for Christmas because we were trying to save money.”
But now, the team is keen to show that they aren’t simply around just to make up the numbers. “As Jamaicans, we have a saying that, ‘We may be a small country, but we’re going to dive into everything to see if we’re capable of doing the things that many wouldn’t consider possible,’” Russell said in an interview with VICE Sports.
“We’re keen to show that if you’re talented you don’t need snow to succeed at the greatest winter sport. Most people who’ve seen the Cool Runnings movie just remember that at the end of the day, they crash. We want to show people back home that we’re not just taking part, we can win.”
Three decades after his Olympic debut, Harris remains hugely passionate about bobsleigh and is already planning on ways to build Jamaica’s program following the Games. Along with other members of the 1988 team, he’s trying to raise money to build a dry track facility in Spanish Town to encourage more young Jamaicans to give the sport a go.
“Growing up, winter sports were never in my future, no matter how much I looked in the crystal ball,” he said. “All these years later, I never imagined this would have become such a major part of my life. I wish I could tell you why because it’s not like I’m a speed demon or adrenaline junkie. But bobsleigh does that, it seeps into your bones and you can’t get rid of it.”