• Rewind To 1988

The real Cool Runnings

Nick Atkin
February 5, 2014
The Jamaican bobsleigh team in action © Getty Images

The tale of the bobsled team from Jamaica who triumphed against the odds to compete at the 1988 Calgary Winter Olympics is embedded in pop culture more than a quarter of a century on. The story has been passed on to new generations thanks in no small part to the phenomenal success of the 1993 film Cool Runnings, which grossed nearly $69 million (£42.4m) in the United States alone. But nothing shows quite how much Cool Runnings diverged from the real story that took place in Calgary than the experience of George Fitch, the man who co-founded the team and whose character was played by John Candy in the film. "When John Candy spoke to me, he said, 'Whoah, I'm playing a completely different role!'" remembers Fitch. "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."

The tale - Hollywood or otherwise - has received another lease of life after the Jamaicans qualified for Sochi, reaching the Winter Olympics for the first time since Salt Lake City 12 years ago. If any evidence is needed of Cool Runnings' enduring popularity, the appeal for funding organised by Devon Harris - one of the members of the original 1988 team - to get Jamaica to Sochi is persuasive. Campaigns were launched on two crowd-funding websites and they smashed their $80,000 (£49,000) target by an extra $100,000 (£61,000). "The support was overwhelming, we had the money in 48 hours," reveals Harris. "We had to close it down, we raised the money and we didn't want to abuse the public's goodwill and trust."

George Fitch co-founded the Jamaican bobsleigh team © PA Photos

The idea of a Jamaican bobsled team began with Fitch, who was the Commercial Attache for the American embassy in Kingston from 1985-86, before he was transferred to Paris. There he developed a friendship with Ken Barnes, father of former Liverpool star John Barnes. But they bonded playing tennis, rather than football. With Fitch returning for a friend's wedding in June 1987, Barnes bragged about how well Jamaica were going to do at the next summer's Olympics in Seoul. But what about the Winter Olympics? "I said, 'You got great athletes and a great athlete should be able to do any sport'," recalls Fitch. "The gauntlet got thrown down."

The annual push cart derby going down the Blue Mountains, in the eastern third of the island, was held the following day. As Fitch mulled over which Olympic sport to pick for his experiment, one sprang to mind. Bobsledding was perfect, in that it played to Jamaica's sprinting strengths. As Finch puts it: "Half the race is how quickly you can push a 600-pound object before you jump, and then the driver just lets the sled steer itself." For the next step, Fitch approached some of the top Jamaican athletes who were training for Seoul but was dismissed; they knew bobsledding was dangerous and didn't want to injure themselves. His next ports of call were the sports clubs in Kingston but no dice there either. The only option left was to hold open tryouts.

Devon Harris: "I dreamed of going to Seoul. I thought I was going to be the next Sebastian Coe" © PA Photos

A wide cast of characters showed up, from street vendors to fishermen - but also some athletes. "What saved me was going to Kenny Barnes," says Fitch. "He didn't laugh this thing off and dismiss me out of hand. He had Major George Henry from the Jamaica Defence Force there. When I said I needed speed to push, he looked over at Henry and said 'Hey George, who's our current sprint champion?', and he said Mike White. Likewise with Devon Harris, who was 800 metres. I said it took good hand-eye coordination to drive the sled. He said, 'Like a helicopter pilot?' So same thing - he turns to George and says who's our helicopter pilot, he says Dudley Stokes. So there you had the three principal members of the Jamaica bobsled team."

"I dreamed of going to the Games, of going to Seoul in '88 - I thought I was gonna be the next Sebastian Coe, you know?" laughs Harris. "But certainly not the Winter Olympics. To be honest when this came up I was thinking that this is ridiculous. But there I am."

Fitch used $92,000 (£56,000) of his own money to train, with the team going to Austria to take part in a World Cup race to meet the international Bobsleigh and Skeleton Federation's (FIBT) requirements. Then just 10 days before the start of the Games, drama. The IOC would not let Jamaica compete. Prince Albert of Monaco - who competed in every Winter Olympics from Calgary to Salt Lake City in 2002 - stepped in with a couple of others. "They reminded the IOC folks, 'Hey listen, these guys qualified, they met all the conditions, you can't just tell them no because you think they're a bunch of clowns,'" says Fitch.

The trip was back on. Team members Dudley Stokes, Devon Harris and Michael White, alternates Freddie 'Reggae' Powell and Caswell Allen, coach Howard Sailer and George Fitch arrived in Calgary.

Cool Runnings paints Jamaica as outcasts who were ridiculed by the other teams and their fans, with the East Germans the de facto bad guys, "but by and large we got a pretty good reception," says Fitch. Especially Powell. "Freddie was easily the most popular guy on our team," recalls Harris. "We were there training, and people would come up to us, and say 'Hey, have you seen Freddie?' And we'd say: 'Have you seen him!?'" Freddie had "raw talent" according to Fitch, but fancied himself a reggae singer rather than an Olympic athlete, and carried around a tape recorder with his songs in case he ran into someone offering him a record contract. "We'd get up to the start, and you'd wait your turn in the shed, and all Freddie did was hang out by the radiator trying to get warm," remembers Fitch.

Dudley Stokes and Michael White in action for Jamaica in the two-man sled © Getty Images

The team had originally aimed to only race in the two-man sled, but after beating 10 other teams they had no plans to become tourists for the remaining eight days of the Games. They informed Fitch they wanted to try the four-man. "I call it the Jamaican in us," says Harris. However Fitch was quick to stop them in their tracks. "I told the guys, 'Let me just point out three problems, immediately'," says Fitch. "One, we've never really been in a four. Two, I'm totally out of money and nobody's going to loan us a sled. A sled's gonna cost about $25,000 (£15,000). And three, I only count three guys sitting around in this room here."

Indeed, the team's number had dwindled to three. Freddie had gone "walkabout" in Fitch's words, while Caswell was also ruled out. "Caswell fell on the push track and got injured," says Harris. "When I say injured, he got bruised a little bit. I think his ego more than anything. It was scratches!" Fitch set to work, striking a deal in a Calgary bar to sell Jamaica bobsled t-shirts which his wife had designed. They proved so popular that they spawned dozens of knockoffs. Fitch raised $24,000 (£14,700), went to the Canadian team and bought a four-man sled from them.

Dudley then told Fitch his brother Chris Stokes was down in Moscow, Idaho, training on a track scholarship for the University of Idaho. Fitch was able to convince a Calgary Olympic official to give Chris accreditation, he then flew in, got in the sled and the team had four practice runs under their belts before the start of the four-man. "When we were in Lake Placid that January we went down the track a few times in a four. But the Olympic race was the very first time we were racing a four-man sled," says Harris.

The t-shirts may have carried the slogan 'Hottest Thing On Ice', but the Jamaicans certainly didn't live up to that monicker in the first two heats. However, it all came together in the third. Word had already hit the streets that the Jamaicans were trying the four, which brought a record crowd of nearly 40,000 at the track, dwarfing the 5,000 you could usually expect. 'Go Jamaica' chanting drowned out the cowbells of the Swiss and the Austrians.

The Jamaicans crashed after a great start in their third heat © Getty Images

Jamaica got off to a phenomenal start, but coming off the eighth corner the sled hit the wall. A 120-degree turn greeted them going into corner nine. They hit the wall again. "We literally ran out of wall, so we crashed," Harris puts it bluntly. The sled worked its way through the rest of the curves and finally came to a rest at the bottom. "Your worst nightmare comes to you then; that they're dead," recalls Fitch. "I killed them all. How do I explain it to their families?" Fitch rushed down and called their names, and "after what seemed like an eternity, but was probably only ten seconds, they began to answer." One by one they came out of the sled, and dusted themselves off. "It was typical Jamaican bravado," says Fitch. "They get up there and start smiling, waving and all that. And that really endeared them to the fans."

Harris felt differently. "I just remember thinking, 'Wow, how embarrassing,'" he recalls. "Here we were going down the track, at the Olympic Games in front of the entire world and we failed, we crashed in front of the entire world. And to me that was embarrassing. We all felt that way; that we had failed our country. That was the toughest part of the crash." Surely he must have been scared, though? "No. That was my seventh crash of the season," he laughs.

The four started pushing the sled over the line. "We just wanted to get out of the public view and the limelight as quickly as we could," says Harris. "We're walking down the stretch feeling rather dejected and one guy reached over and shook my hand. So I shook his hand and after that I had to shake every other hand. Everybody wanted to shake my hand. People started to wave, and cheer, and say 'we love you'. It made us feel a little better. Not a whole lot better."

It wasn't long before Hollywood came knocking at Fitch's door and bought the rights for the story. Fitch recalls: "They said, 'Don't tell us here in Hollywood how to write a script'. So I had no editorial control over it. They wrote what they wanted to write. About one percent is true. What is fact is the crash, everything else is fiction. This 'feel the rhythm, feel the rhyme, it's Jamaica bobsled time', that was strictly Hollywood," says Fitch, adding that it was "an embarrassment".

Harris is less scathing, though. "I embrace the film because it immortalised our team," he says. "It's 2014 and it has allowed two more generations to become intimate with our story. It is a comedy and they took a lot of poetic licence, but that's how Hollywood is."

What would Harris have liked to be done differently, though? "Perhaps a more authentic Jamaican accent," he laughs. "You know, it is my pet peeve. Every film that is done in Jamaica, they always have a stupid goat running across the street. I'm like, will somebody catch that goat and bring some curry so we can cook him already."

Freddie Powell, alongside Dudley Stokes and Michael White © Getty Images © Getty Images

However the film spins the truth, it has not tarnished Harris's memories. He recalls a moment which could have been straight out of the film too. "One day we were training up in Lake Placid, practicing our ice sprints over 50 metres," he says. "It began to get dark, dusk was falling. And Freddie, we saw him disappear across the lake. And we go, 'Shit! Freddie has run off!' We thought he wasn't going to come back. And then a few minutes later we saw Freddie walking back, and he made it clear he was running two 50m sprints in one. He really misunderstood the purpose.

"But I think my fondest memory is that moment when we're walking to the Opening Ceremony. When you grow up watching the Olympics, and you see these men and women from all over the world marching in the Opening Ceremony, thinking, 'Wow, those are some of the best athletes in the world'. And then one day you set foot in an Olympic Opening Ceremony, 50,000 people screaming their heads off, and seeing more cameras than you can possibly count. And you know that in that moment your image is on TV all over the world, and surely there's some little boy and girl somewhere in the world looking up to you, and you're kind of hoping you can live up to that expectation."

It's a good thing Harris's memory is so strong. "I'm so terrible at keeping stuff, unfortunately," he says. "I have a few photos. I had a camera there, but because I was training and racing I told Freddie to hold onto it and take pictures, and when I was done I said 'where's my camera?' He lost it though."

The Jamaican Prime Minister said, 'Thanks so much for turning things around for the country'
George Fitch

His lowest point? The Closing Ceremony, of course. "I can see it in my head, this awful swoosh when the flame was extinguished," Harris says. "That moment, it sucked the Olympic spirit out of the air; the utopia was over just like that. Remember those days when you're a kid and your parents say, 'OK, come inside, come and do your homework.' I took my bobsled uniform off, put my army uniform on and went back to work."

Still, it wasn't all completely over. There was the small matter of embracing their roles as national heroes. "I guess that we were so worried and embarrassed when we crashed, and we thought people were going to be very pissed off at us, but to our surprise they were so supportive," Harris says. "The government made stamps with our faces on it, so that was really cool."

At a time when the country was getting hammered in the press about Jamaican drug possess, Fitch's experiment proved opportune. "I don't know how they did it, but someone came up with a number of $8m (£4.9m) worth of positive free publicity that we'd generated," says Fitch. "When we came back from Calgary, Eddie Seaga, the Prime Minister, gave me a medal of honour. Eddie said it was perfect timing, thanks so much for turning things around for the country."


George Fitch was a candidate for the Virginia Republican gubernatorial nomination in 2005 © AP

The Jamaican bobsled team returned to the Winter Olympics at Albertville in 1992. Two years later in Lillehammer, Fitch's original point that a good athlete can do any sport was firmly established and embedded as Jamaica came in 13th, beating several top teams like USA 1, Russia 1, Italy 2 and Austria 2. "I wish I could say that continued but it didn't," Fitch says. "Lillehammer was the apex, and we never came close to duplicating that." But Jamaica's influence 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," says Fitch. "At least half a dozen islands now have bobsled teams."

Fitch went on to become mayor of Warrenton, Virginia in the US. He is currently serving his last term, which expires at the end of June. That hasn't stopped him aiding the funding effort for the Jamaican bobsled team - he and his wife have been selling the old 'Hottest Thing On Ice' t-shirts to donate money to the cause.

Devon Harris also competed in and captained the team in Albertville and the 1998 Games in Nagano, Japan. He left the army after eight years of service following Albertville to become a motivational speaker, and has written two books. He continues to fight for the cause, too. He now has five children, who are all fans of Cool Runnings. Whether it has inspired another generation of Harrises to take to the track is debatable. "I took my children up to Lake Placid a couple of years ago to watch a race," says Harris. "They were complaining that it was too cold. And I'm like 'it's bobsledding, it's supposed to be cold!'"

Devon Harris captained the team at the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics © Getty Images

Nick Atkin is an assistant editor at ESPN. You can follow him on Twitter @NickAtkinESPN

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