Beyond ‘Cool Runnings’: The 1988 Jamaican Bobsled Legacy
Improbable? Yes. Impossible? Definitely not.
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Immortalized by the popular 1993 film, “Cool Runnings,” the story of the Jamaican national bobsled team’s performance at the 1988 Calgary Winter Games remains as remarkable 30 years later as it was when the foursome first broke onto the international scene.
MARK CARDWELL/AFP/Getty Images“A great athlete should be able to do any sport.” That was the belief of George Fitch, an American commercial trade attaché to Jamaica, who co-founded the Jamaica Bobsleigh Federation.
GEORGES GOBET/AFP/Getty ImagesFitch believed bobsled was a perfect fit for some of the Jamaican sprinters training for the Summer Games taking place later that year in Seoul. "Half the race is how quickly you can push a 600-pound object before you jump,” he noted, “and then the driver just lets the sled steer itself." The only problem? None of the sprinters were interested.
Will McIntyre/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty ImagesWith the support of the Jamaica Olympic Association, Fitch turned to “volunteers” from the Jamaica Defense Force, among them a 25-year old helicopter pilot named Dudley Stokes. “The Colonel made the suggestion and [as] a Captain, you do as your told and obey orders…. Once [I started] I was hooked.” Fellow soldiers Devon Harris and Michael White, along with college student Caswell Allen and an aspiring Reggae singer named Freddie Powell, rounded out the team. (From left: Michael White, Dudley Stokes, Devon Harris, Frederick Powell)TOSHIO SAKAI/AFP/Getty ImagesThe Jamaicans arrived in Calgary with little experience and borrowed equipment — but the congenial cast of underdogs quickly garnered immense popularity and media attention around the world. (From left: Freddie Powell, Michael White, Caswell Allen)
Manny Millan/Sports Illustrated/Getty ImagesOriginally set to compete only in the two-man event (with driver Dudley Stokes and brakeman Michael White) the team sold t-shirts on the streets of Calgary to raise enough money to buy a used four-man sled. The unforgettable slogan emblazoned on the t-shirt: “Hottest Thing on Ice.”
Getty ImagesA massive crowd of nearly 40,000 turned out at Canada Olympic Park to watch the four-man bobsled, an event that the Jamaicans had never trained for. Their inexperience showed in the first two runs, finishing near the bottom of the standings.
Jerry Cooke/Sports Illustrated/Getty ImagesTheir third attempt, held the following day, started fast but the team lost control at 85 miles per hour crashed, pinning the drivers head against the inside wall and crashed. Although none of the four were injured, their remarkable Olympic journey had officially come to an end.Getty ImagesJust months after first setting eyes on a bobsled, the dejected but determined Jamaicans proudly pushed the sled over the line. “People started to wave, and cheer, and say, 'We love you,’” Devon Harris said. “It made us feel a little better — [but] not a whole lot better.”
Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images For IBSFWhile Jamaica's medal chances came to an end, the country's Winter Olympic journey was far from over. Thirty years later, Jamaica adds to their inspirational bobsled legacy — sending a women’s team to the Winter Olympics for the first time. (From left: Carrie Russell, Jazmine Fenlator-Victorian)