For those of us who were alive in the 90’s remember the classic Walt Disney film Cool Runnings, directed by Jon Turteltaub that grossed over $69 million in the US alone. The film tells the story of Derice Bannock a Jamaican sprinter who was predicted to compete in the Olympics, but gets disqualified during a qualifier race. He wants to compete so bad in the Olympic games that he starts the first Jamaican Bobsled team. The film is based of a true story of the Jamaica national bobsleigh team’s first debut competition during the 1998 Winter Olympics in Calgary, Canada.
In 2014 Dudley “Tal” Stokes, who was on the actually 1988 Olympic team that inspired the film spoke up online in October of 2014 stating that Cool Runnings, “Is a feature Disney film, not much in it actually happened in real life.” The true story is that George Fitch an American who was living in Jamaica at the time, was inspired by a local pushcart derby. Fitch who was portrayed by John Candy in the film became the founder of the team, Fitch also spoke out about the film saying, “I was personally offended by the film because I’m not a disgraced Olympic bobsledder who’s a drunk, who’s spending the rest of my life in some pool hall. But that’s Hollywood” he said in an ESPN article.
Fitch then pitched it to the government and it got approved, they recruited men from the Jamaican army. Also, during the recruitment process they needed someone with good hand-eye coordination to drive the sled, he asked one of the Colonels in the army if they had anyone that fit that description. He gave him a helicopter pilot and he became the driver of the sled. Coaches from the US and Austria were sent over to help teach the team how to bobsled. Jamaica did not have much of a budget for the team so after they qualified for the Olympics they needed to raise $80,000 and were over-whelmed when they received $100,000, which was still the bare minimum to compete. Fitch also pitched in $92,000 of his own money to support the team.
Stokes said that he saw a bobsled for the first time in September 1987, and by February he was competing in the Winter Olympics. Once in Calgary the team aimed to only race in the two-man sled event, but after beating 13 other teams they wanted to try the four-man race. Fitch said that, they didn’t have any money left over, didn’t have a four-man sled and only had three guys do to an injury. The guys didn’t want to give up. So they sold Jamaica bobsled t-shirts and they proved to be so popular that were able to raise $24,000! They then went to the Canadian team and bought a used four-man sled from them.They still only had three guys so Stokes told Fitch, that his brother Chris Stokes was a track star at the University of Idaho. They were able to convince Olympic officials to give Chris accreditation and flew him in.
Now as a team of four, they only had four practice runs before the start of the race. The team brought a lot of popularity with them and their race drew in a record crowd of 40,000 to their race. Compared to the 5,000 that was expected. During the actually race their sled was going 85 miles an hour when it lost control and crashed. The teammates were trapped underneath the sled. Unlike the movie the team did not lift the sled over their heads and carry it across the finish line. But they did push the sled across the finish line and while doing so thousands and thousands of people shook their hands as the crowd cheered them on.
This was an incredible story of how many hoops this Jamaican team had to jump through and how they never gave up hope. Although it ended in disappointment Fitch said in an interview with ESPN reporter Nick Atkin, “The Jamaican bobsled team returned to the Winter Olympics at Albertville in 1992. Two years later in Lillehammer, Jamaica came in 13th, beating several top teams like USA 1, Russia 1, Italy 2 and Austria 2. But Jamaica’s influence of creating a team spawned off, with Trinidad, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, Mexico, American Samoa and the Philippines all creating teams. They actually had a Caribbean Cup. You go to a World Cup race and they had a cup within a cup. At least half a dozen islands now have bobsled teams.” This was a huge moment for the sport of bobsledding, people saw what the Jamaicans had done and it inspired other countries to follow in their footstep and created more teams.