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The First Jamaican Bobsled Team
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First Jamaican Bobsled Team | Photo Credit: Getty ImagesFirst Jamaican Bobsled Team | Photo Credit: Getty Images

By Wellesley Gayle

Do you remember the movie “ Cool Runnings”? Did you know that it was really based on the first Jamaican Bobsled team? Crazy right, because why would a tropical island like Jamaica be interested in winter sports.

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But we all already know that Jamaica “likkle but wi tallawah” and something like a little snow and a little cold wasn’t going to deter us.

When did Jamaica get their first bobsled team?

We shocked the world in 1988 when the first Jamaican bobsled team participated in the 1988 Olympics Winter Games in Calgary, Canada. Many thought it was a joke!

But to be honest, I would understand the sceptics; You hardly expect a tropical paradise island to know enough about bobsled, moreover to field a team and compete. But we did!

These bobsledders warmed the hearts of many worldwide in their first attempt at Olympic glory and were even immortalized in the popular Walt Disney movie Cool Runnings, which was released in 1993.

How much of Cool Runnings is true?

Not much! Which is to be expected right? Many movies based on true stories only have snippets of factual details. George Fitch in an interview stated that in his opinion only about 1% of the film was “true”, even the chant “feel the rhythm, feel the rhyme, it's Jamaica bobsled time” that everyone loved was not true. The only part that was fact was the major crash that happened. 

Jamaica’s entry into the Winter Olympics started with the idea of two Americans who decided to take the sprinting talent that is so abundant in Jamaica and apply it to bobsledding. However, the members of the Jamaican sprint team at the time could not be convinced to take up the new sport of speed and ice.

So the two Americans, George Fitch and William Maloney turned their attention to the Jamaica Defence Force where they presented their idea to Colonel Ken Barnes - the rest is history.

The first four members of the Jamaican bobsled team were:

  1. Devon Harris, a Lieutenant in the Second Battalion, Jamaican Army
  2. Dudley Stokes, a captain from the JDF Air Wing
  3. Michael White, a private in the National Reserves &
  4. Samuel Clayton, a railway engineer

Chris Stokes, the brother of Dudley joined the team later on.

The bobsled team was selected in September 1987 and did their initial training in Jamaica; practising the push start on a flat concrete surface on the military base in Kingston using a makeshift sled.

From there they went to Calgary, Canada where they went down a bobsled track for the first time. After three weeks in Calgary, it was off to Innsbruck Austria where they competed in two minor races before returning to Jamaica for the Christmas break. They spent the month of January in Lake Placid, New York before the Olympic Games in February 1988.

In this, the first games in 1988, the team was seen as a novelty as they had technical difficulties, injuries and crashes. However, in the second game in 1992, the team had drastically improved. They had practised hard for four years and were confident and focused.

The four-man team came in an amazing 14th! ahead of the United States, French, Russian and Italian teams. This was just the beginning! In the two-man event, the Jamaican team shocked the world by beating the Swedish national champions on their way to a 10th-place finish. They still didn’t stop their as they participated in the Winter Olypmics in 1998 as well. 

Has Jamaica ever won a medal in bobsled?

Yes! The team continued to improve and in 2000 they took gold at the World Push Championships in Monte Carlo in three events, and at the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City, they posted the fasted start time at the World Cup.

This first Jamaican bobsled team has not only created a new interest in the sport here, but they also inspired a lot of us - myself included, to chant new frontiers, aim higher and seek to achieve even more.

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