BEIJING (KXAN) — For the first time since 1998, the Winter Olympics are due for some rhythm and rhyme.
The Jamaican bobsled team still rides the Disney wave after the 1993 movie “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 movie secured the program corporate sponsorships and infused the cash-strapped organization with much-needed resources, and it was a hit at the box office. At the time, Disney said it was its highest-grossing live-action film, making more than $157 million.
But if you really want to brush up on your Jamaican bobsled team history as the team takes to the hill at the Yanqing National Sliding Center in Beijing, don’t bother logging in to your Disney+ account. John Candy and Doug E. Doug won’t be able to help you very much.
The movie was highly fictionalized, merely “inspired by” the team’s time before, during and after the 1988 Games. The team faced a mountain of adversity and doubt, from themselves and others, just to qualify for the Games — that much is certainly true. But according to team members who lived out that first illustrious Olympics for the tiny Caribbean island, that was about where the similarities ended.
They feel the movie didn’t portray them as serious athletes, but rather comical caricatures of fun-loving Jamaicans who were just happy to spend a couple weeks in Canada to slide 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. “This Jamaican bobsled team was the real thing.”
Siler, a nine-time national bobsled champion in his heyday, died in 2014, but his wife told the Los Angeles Times that he wasn’t a big fan of the movie.
“There were scenes that made them look cutesy, silly,” his wife Debra said. “He was disappointed that Disney decided to make the movie a sort of comical situation as opposed to how serious their accomplishments were.”
Siler also didn’t appreciate the way Candy portrayed him, although Candy’s character went by the name “Irv” in the film. Rather than lean into the fact Siler was an extremely accomplished bobsledder, Disney chose to have Candy’s character play a washed-up has-been looking for redemption after leaving the sport in disgrace.
Other team members, like Devon Harris, choose to look at the film’s bright side.
“They took a lot of poetic license,” Harris said in the documentary, but also said the film did a good job “depicting the spirit of the team.”
“They stretched some truth or made up some to make it funny,” he said.
George Fitch, a Republican politician from Virginia with ties to Jamaica through work with the Commerce Department during the Reagan administration, helped build the team. In an ESPN interview before his death in 2014, Fitch called the movie “an embarrassment.”
“They wrote what they wanted to write,” Fitch said. “About one percent is true. What is fact is the crash, everything else is fiction.”
The team crashed and didn’t finish the four-man competition, but walked across the finish line with the sled, shaking hands with fans along the track. It was a move that made them heroes back home.
Even if the movie was mostly fiction, it still inspires and influences bobsledders and fans today. Many Gen Xers and millennials alike know about Sanka’s lucky egg, practicing turns in a bathtub and the catchy line, “Feel the rhythm, feel the rhyme, get on up, it’s bobsled time!”
How the team came together
The team was put together by Fitch and Kenny Barnes, a high-ranking officer in the Jamaican military, according to the Washington Post. Fitch looked at athletes who were training for the 1988 Summer Olympics, but hit a dead end there, then put out newspaper ads for an open tryout of sorts before enlisting Barnes’ help. Barnes was able to secure Harris and Mike White to be on the team, and then Caswell Allen, Freddie Powell, Dudley Stokes and his younger brother Chris Stokes rounded out the team.
The team trained at an army base in Jamaica and the sled’s pilot, Dudley Stokes, flew planes and helicopters in the military, so in a way, of course he could steer a metal tube with sled runners down a curve-filled icy path, right?
The team had some practice time in Lake Placid with a borrowed sled, but then went back to Kingston, Jamaica’s capital city, and practiced with a rickety cart on wheels similar to pushcarts that were very popular on the island. The country’s rich history of track and field athletes, specifically in sprints, plays very well into bobsled racing, particularly the push start.
After competing in a bobsled World Cup event in Austria, and a lot of politicking by Fitch, Jamaica sent its team to Calgary.
Jamaica also had a two-man bobsled team in Calgary, and that team actually finished. It placed 30th out of 40 teams.
Jamaica at the 2022 Winter Olympics
This year, the Jamaicans have both men and women competing in the Olympics. Two- and four-man teams made the cut, as did Jazmine Fenlator-Victorian who piloted the country’s first women’s monobob sled. Fenlator-Victorian was a 2014 Olympian for the United States in bobsled but joined Jamaica’s team via her father being born there. She was also part of a two-woman team in the 2018 Games.
NBC’s Sam Brock spent some time with the team and chronicled their journey to Beijing, nearly 30 years after the Jamaicans last made it to bobsled’s penultimate event.
Shanwayne Stephens, the pilot for this year’s team, had an interesting training regimen leading up to the Games. As a lance corporal in the Royal Air Force, Stephens pushed a Mini Cooper around Peterborough in England where he lives. It even caught the eye of the Queen.
“The struggle is still the same, we still have no ice, no training facilities,” Stephens said. “All of the guys on the team feel the responsibility of what we achieved. It’s a massive achievement.”
After four training heats, the Jamaicans are almost two seconds behind the leaders. The competition heats are Saturday and Sunday.