Jamaica, the sprinting powerhouse, unexpectedly qualified to compete in bobsled at the 1988 Calgary Winter Olympics.
The loveable islanders quickly became fan favorites. T-shirts with the phrase “Hottest thing on Ice” flew off the shelves, and their reggae record “Hobbin and a Bobbin” became a hit. Their underdog story was even told, loosely, in the film “Cool Runnings.”
But an untimely injury nearly derailed the Jamaican bobsledders.
Just days before the competition, Caswell Allen reportedly fell on the push track and injured himself, although the official Jamaica Bobsleigh and Skeleton Federation website speculated that Allen was a “capable athlete” who “seemed more interested in enjoying the night life.”
Desperate for a fourth athlete, pilot Dudley Stokes recruited somebody familiar: his younger brother, Chris Stokes.
Chris was only in Calgary to support his older brother, and had never even seen a bobsled before. But he was fast and in elite shape while training for the 1988 Sumer Olympics as a sprinter.
“I sort of felt scared,” Chris admitted. “Am I going to be safe or tossed around like a rag doll?”
He managed to secure a last-minute Olympic accreditation, which he acknowledges would be impossible today.
In just three days on the ice, Chris’ new teammates attempted to teach him everything he needed to know about the unfamiliar sport.
Chris’ hectic schedule in Calgary:
Monday: He saw a bobsled for the first time.
Tuesday: He pushed a bobsled for the first time.
Wednesday: Second day pushing a bobsled.
Thursday: Third day pushing a bobsled.
Friday: Rest day.
Saturday: First Olympic race.
On the ice, Chris’ biggest challenge was to overcome fear.
“Sprinting downhill on ice is hard enough,” he said, “and then you have another mile of hurdling down this icy shoot, which is plain terrifying.”
Off the ice, Chris had to adjust to his newfound fame. His older brother warned him not to wear his Jamaican bobsled jacket outside of the Olympic Village, but Chris had to learn the hard way.
“The fans were all over me, and I couldn’t even walk,” Chris said. “I turned around and walked back immediately.”
The Jamaicans ranked 24th out of 26 sleds after their first Olympic run, and fell to 25th after the second run.
They crashed on their third run, in a moment that is dramatized in “Cool Runnings.” No, they did not lift the sled over their heads, but they did get up and push it over the finish line.
Chris felt embarrassed after the crash, but quickly forgot about his pain when he saw the number of fans encouraging his team as they approached the finish line.
“They understood that the expectation was not to win, but to compete courageously,” he said. “It was a beautiful thing.”
After the Olympics, the Jamaicans joined the U.S. national team on a barnstorming tour, holding head-to-head push competitions in cities across the United States. The Jamaicans were featured prominently in newspaper advertisements, helping to attract large crowds and a record number of bobsled recruits, according to Brian Shimer, who competed for the U.S. in Calgary and is now the U.S. bobsled head coach.
Shimer compared traveling the country with the Jamaicans to being on tour with rock stars.
“It was the most notoriety bobsled has ever gotten,” he said, “probably since it became an Olympic sport.”
The movie “Cool Runnings” appeared in theaters in 1993. To this day, fans quote movie lines to Chris, most often, “I’m feeling very Olympic today.” Chris, who is now President of the Jamaica Bobsled Federation, often finds himself quoting the coach character played by John Candy, “A gold medal is a wonderful thing. But if you’re not enough without one, you’ll never be enough with one.”
He is constantly approached by fans, some born more than a decade after he made his Olympic debut, asking for autographs or advice.
“People inadvertently come across ‘Cool Runnings’ on television or on a flight, and having watched it, feel encouraged and emboldened to take on the challenges in life,” Chris said. “It gives me a sense of it being worthwhile to go through the pain and the disappointment of starting from the beginning because we cleared that path for other people and removed their excuses.
“Press forward and do what you can with what you have, and miracles can occur.”