Jamaica's Famous Bobsled Team

Jamaica's Famous Bobsled Team

How does an Olympic-hopeful team earn a spot in a snowy Olympic sport when they live on a tropical island?

Let’s explore the amazing story of the Jamaican Bobsled team!

Jamaica has sent plenty of athletes to the Olympics, but mostly for the Summer games in the track-and-field events such as sprinting, hurdles, and discus and javelin throwing.

Back in the late 1980s, a man named George Fitch lived in Kingston, Jamaica, and worked at the embassy there. His friend had been bragging about how well the island’s athletes were going to do at the Seoul Summer Olympics.

Then George said something that seemed silly at the time. What about the 1988 Calgary Winter Olympics?

Say what??

He said Jamaica has “great athletes, and great athletes should be able to do any sport.”

Well, that got people talking. The next day George and his friend attended the annual Blue Mountain Push Cart Derby, and THAT got them thinking.

What about…bobsledding!

That would definitely use the awesome sprinting strengths of the Jamaican athletes. An important part of a bobsled race is seeing how fast a team can push the sled before they jump into it. The rest of the race is hanging on and steering down the track!

George asked the Jamaican Olympic athletes if they wanted to join the team.

No way! They didn’t want to get injured since bobsledding is kind of dangerous.

So George held open tryouts and several athletes showed up. Eventually, the bobsled team included Devon Harris, Michael White, Dudley Stokes, Freddy Powell, Chris Stokes, and the coach, Howard Sailer.

bobsled track for summer

Since there’s no snow in Jamaica, the team improvised by training with makeshift sleds on concrete. They figured since they were strong sprinters, they could get a great start on the downhill race.

The hardest part of the whole adventure was coming up with enough money to fund the training and equipment. George used almost $100,000 of his own money to help! Other fundraising events helped get enough money to make up the difference.

Eventually, the team traveled to Austria to participate in a World Cup bobsled championship, one step on their way to qualifying for a spot in the Olympics.

Of course, they raised quite a stir. How could people from a tropical island know anything about bobsledding? But they surprised everyone and earned a spot in the Olympics.

At first, Jamaica was only going to take part in the two-man bobsled race. But the athletes wanted more. They wanted to try for the four-man sled race. Devon Harris quipped, “I call it the Jamaica in us.”

George was frustrated because they didn’t have any money to buy a four-man sled. But they didn’t give up!

George’s wife designed some Jamaica bobsled t-shirts that read “The Hottest Thing On Ice”, and George got a local restaurant to sell them. The shirts were so popular, the team raised enough money to buy a four-man sled.

Now that the Jamaican team had the necessary equipment, they trained hard and headed to Calgary for the 1988 Winter Olympics. They had to complete four separate bobsled runs to place.

The first two runs were not that great, but the third run promised to be the best of all.

That is, until the crash.

The bobsled hit the wall twice, flipped on its side, then slid to a stop further down the track. Howard, George, and the crowd held their breaths. Medical personnel ran over…

Then one by one, the team emerged from the crashed sled. They shook themselves off, smiled, and waved to the crowd. The fans went wild!

As they pushed their sled down the rest of the track and across the line, the team was feeling very sad.

But then first one person then another reached out to shake their hands. They had attempted what seemed impossible, and they’d made it. They were heroes!

Even though they didn’t finish that year, they came back in 1992 and placed 25th. Then in 1994, they stunned the naysayers when they finished 14th, ahead of some of the other countries that had traditionally done well in the bobsled race!

postage stamp with bobsled at olympics

And, as icing on the cake, the Jamaican bobsled team won the gold medal in the 2000 World Push competition in Monaco.

They had gone from underdogs to a beloved athletic team. It was the stuff of fairy tales.

Their story captured the attention of a Hollywood producer, and that led to the 1993 film, Cool Runnings, starring John Candy. Of course, the scriptwriters stretched the facts to make a good movie, but the public was enchanted by the story anyway.

The movie is still popular, so two more generations of people have gotten to know the tenacity of the tropical athletes who risked it all to be a part of a winter sport.

bobsled up close going fast

What about now?

The Jamaican bobsled teams (yes, TEAMS!) won spots in the 2022 Winter Olympic Games in Beijing: the two-man bobsled, the four-man bobsled, and the woman’s monobob.

Team Jamaica posted on their Twitter page, “It will be fire on ice.”

And just like 1988, the Jamaican winter athletes are beloved. They became champions because they never gave up.

How about creating a delicious dish from our Jamaica box and have movie night? You can enjoy culture and cuisine when you eat2explore!

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