The 1988 Jamaican Olympic bobsled team inspired a Disney movie that grossed nearly $70 million at American box offices.
It all started when two American businessmen who were living in Jamaica hatched an idea while watching a local pushcart derby. The men, George Fitch and William Maloney, thought the sport resembled bobsledding. They took their idea for a Jamaican bobsled team to the country’s Olympic association.
“Half the race is how quickly you can push a 600-pound object before you jump,” Fitch observed of bobsledding. “Then the driver just lets the sled steer itself.”
Seeking to take advantage of Jamaica’s rich stable of sprinters, Fitch tried to recruit track athletes to the team. Fearing injury in the run-up to the 1988 Summer Games in Seoul, the sprinters declined. Fitch then tried to entice club sport athletes to try out, but to no avail. Desperate to form a team, Fitch turned to Major George Henry from the Jamaican Defense Force.
Major Henry recruited army sprint champion, Private Michael White, and 800-meter champion, Lieutenant Devon Harris, to the team. He then ordered Captain Dudley Stokes, a military helicopter pilot, to drive the sled. “I got into bobsledding because I was told to go,” Stokes later said. “The colonel made the suggestion to me and, because I was a captain, you do as you’re told and obey orders. That’s how I became involved. Once there, I was hooked.”
Fitch used $ 92,000 of his own money to train the team. He hired Howard Siler, who had competed for the U.S. bobsled team at the 1972 and 1980 Olympics, as coach.
Stokes saw a bobsled for the first time in September 1987. Five months later, he was competing in the Winter Olympics.
The team practiced starts by pushing a makeshift sled on wheels across a flat concrete surface on the army base. They trained in Lake Placid and traveled to Austria to take part in a World Cup race. A month before the start of the Calgary Games, Freddie “Reggae” Powell and Caswell Allen joined the team as alternates.
The Jamaicans were nearly denied a spot in the 1988 Winter Olympics. Fearing the team was seeking a publicity stunt, the Federation International de Bobsleigh et de Tobagganing – the sport’s governing body – reluctantly admitted the Jamaican Bobsled Federation to its ranks.
In Cool Runnings, the 1993 Disney movie inspired by the 1988 Jamaican bobsled team, the sledders are depicted as outcasts. In reality, they were immensely popular in Calgary. The bobsledders couldn’t leave the Olympic Village for fear of being mobbed. The Jamaicans were likable, good-natured men. The consummate underdog story of an island nation competing in a winter sport made for good press.
The American media, hungry for something to cover after the unexpected early elimination of the U.S. hockey team, swarmed over the Jamaicans. Their T-shirts and sweatshirts were the hottest items in Calgary. The team’s song, Hobbin’ and a Bobbin, was played everywhere. Powell was easily the most popular member of the team. A raw talent, Freddie fancied himself more of a reggae singer than Olympic athlete. He carried around tapes of his songs in case he ran into someone offering him a record contract.
The Jamaicans entered the two-man event. Driver Dudley Stokes and brakeman Michael White became the first athletes to represent Jamaica in the Winter Games. After beating ten other teams, they informed Fitch they wanted to try the four-man competition.
Their first order of business was to find a sled. Using money earned from T-shirt sales [Hottest Thing On Ice], they rented a used sled from the Canadians and painted it in Jamaican colors.
Powell and Allen were injured during training, leaving the team with three bobsledders. Dudley’s brother, Chris, was in Calgary watching the competition. A former track star at Idaho, Chris Stokes – who had never seen a bobsled — was quickly added to the team. After a crash-course in bobsledding and four practice runs, the Jamaicans were ready.
On the team’s first run during the four-man event, Dudley Stokes’ push bar collapsed. On the second, Michael White had trouble getting into the sled and was not able to settle in until well into the run. The Jamaicans completed both runs but felt they had not performed anywhere near their potential.
Jamaica got off to a fast start in the opening run of Day Two. Then, coming out of a sharp circular turn at 85 miles per hour, Stokes lost control of the sled and crashed. The rented sleigh lay on its side on the track, the Jamaicans’ hopes crushed.
Unlike the inspirational scene in Cool Runnings, the team did not carry the sled across the finish line. Rather, they humbly pushed it to the end of the track and disappeared, their Olympics over.
The Jamaican bobsled team returned to the Olympics in 1992. Two years later in Lillehammer, they finished 13th, beating teams from the U.S., Russia, Italy and Austria. Serving as driver and team captain, Dudley Stokes represented Jamaica in four Winter Olympics.
Since 1988, Jamaica bobsledders have competed in all but two Olympics. Today, at least half a dozen island nations have bobsled teams.