Jamaican Bobsledders Hoping to Try It Again
They’ll be back.
And this time the Jamaican bobsled team wants to be remembered as competitors, not as a curiosity.
The crew most known in the 1988 Olympics for a spectacular spill will be in Albertville for the 1992 Winter Games hoping to show that athletes from their Caribbean nation are made for this cold-weather sport.
“We’re looking at cracking the top 20 in two-man and four-man,” said Dudley Stokes, whose crash as driver of the four-man sled pinned his head at a 90-degree angle against the bobsled run wall and made celebrities out of him and his teammates.
“I’d have rather not have had my head outside (during the crash),” said Stokes, who walked way from the run with only a sore neck. “I have not had my head hanging out since.”
The Jamaican Bobsled Federation, conceived by chairman George Fitch and his friend William Maloney “after some bad Jamaican rum,” grew from two guys talking about the Olympics during the summer of 1987.
Maloney, an American working in Jamaica, wanted to change his citizenship to play tennis in the Olympics. Fitch, 42, a 10-year U.S. foreign service veteran who had worked on the Reagan-administration project called the Caribbean Based Initiative, convinced him otherwise but still thought about bringing sports marketing to Jamaica -- and competing in the Olympics.
“The why was the dare,” Fitch said. “The how is basically going down the list of winter sports and getting a team to go to the Olympics. Of all the winter sports, bobsledding best fit the aspects found in Jamaica -- speed and power.”
But despite his high hopes, neither the government nor businesses were willing to invest.
“I kept hearing, ‘You’ve got to be kidding,”’ Fitch said.
Jamaica’s best sprinters also thought he was nuts.
Fitch spent more than $100,000 of his own money outfitting, equipping and preparing his team for the Olympics.
With some help from another friend, Jamaican Defense Force Col. Ken Barnes, Fitch had a team.
Fitch needed speed and power: so he got eight sprinters. For driving, they needed a delicate touch, like that of a helicopter pilot: Barnes gave him two helicopter pilots.
Dudley Stokes was a captain and a helicopter pilot. Harris was a captain and a platoon commander. Twenty five people showed up for the tryouts -- fishermen, Air Jamaica pilots, students, accountants, and one aspiring reggae singer.
After the selection process, the team travelled to Lake Placid, N.Y., and a U.S. federation-sponsored clinic to get it used to seeing, as well as walking, on ice.
It was when they arrived in Calgary that the legend began to build.
While preparing for a practice run, Fredddie Powell, the reggae singer, told Fitch that he was extremely nervous.
“I told Freddie to do whatever made him relax,” Fitch said.
So, while waiting at the top of the almost religiously quiet track, “All of a sudden we start hearing this reggae version of ‘A Whiter Shade of Pale,”’ Fitch said. Singing made Freddie relax.
That inspired “Hobbin’ and a Bobbin,” their reggae theme song by PC Harris.
“We did a fund raiser in Calgary during the Olympics,” Fitch said. “He (Powell) did three songs and brought the house down.”
In the two-man, Stokes and Mike White finished 30th out of 39 sleds, “beating all the traditional powers like New Zealand, Mexico, Portugal,” Fitch said.
“After the two-man event, we kind of got a little full of ourselves,” Fitch said, and they decided to enter the four-man event. “We had only practiced the four-man twice, and we didn’t even have a four-man sled at the Olympics.”
After two runs in the four-man, Jamaica I was standing six from the bottom.
“And of course the third heat, which everybody remembers,” Fitch said, referring to the run where the Jamaican sled flipped coming out of the kreisel, a 360-degree loop, and skidded on its side, stopping just before the finish.
Since riding into Olympic history, the Jamaicans have competed in seven World Cup races over the last three seasons, finishing in the lower third of the pack.
But there has been a victory.
“We won the Caribbean Cup,” Fitch proclaimed, referring to the $75 silver trophy offered by the Virgin Islands team as a prize to the best warm-weather team.
“We’re trying to show you can have fun, enjoy yourself and be good at what you do,” Dudley said. “It’s our special way, being relaxed and still being serious. You don’t always have to staid and have your head down.”