Jamaican Bobsledders: A Cool Running theme
They were a novelty, and then they became a symbol of the Olympic spirit. Then they were a movie. But the four men of the first Jamaican bobsled team, the four men who went to the 1988 Calgary Winter Olympics having hardly ever felt snow, always wanted one thing.
“We wanted most of all,” said Nelson Chris Stokes, “to compete. We were not jokes. We were athletes who wanted to test ourselves.”
Fourteen years after the first Jamaican bobsledders brought reggae to the Winter Games, Jamaica could only afford to send a two-man team to Salt Lake City.
The team has survived mainly on the kindness of strangers. Jamaican bobsledders train in Evanston, Wyo., where the town welcomed the athletes by offering them free rooms and the chance to earn pocket change by working as pizza deliverymen.
Stokes, who with his brother Dudley, Devon Harris and Michael White were the first Jamaican bobsledders, is now the president of the Jamaican Bobsleigh Federation, and Dudley is a member. Chris Stokes works for a savings and loan institution in the Jamaican capital of Kingston. Dudley has his own company.
White works in retail in the New York City area, according to Chris Stokes. Harris is a motivational speaker.
The 1993 Disney movie “Cool Runnings” was loosely based on the four young Jamaicans and their quirky desire to pursue entry into the Winter Olympics from a country where it is virtually always 80 degrees.
While grim-faced bobsled officials lamented the way the Jamaicans seemed to be making a mockery of their sport, the fans in Calgary embraced the Stokes brothers, Harris and White. Jamaican bobsled pins quickly became collectors’ items. Even when the Jamaican sled had a roiling, rolling, end-over-end crash in the third run, the team only became more loved and more popular.
At the 1994 Lillehammer Games, the Jamaican sled even beat a U.S. entry and finished 14th. Harris was still competing as a driver in Nagano in 1998.
“Jamaica is a funny country,” Chris Stokes said. “Jamaicans tend to like their heroes to have a medal or two, as they’ve been spoiled by the track athletes. So we are much more famous and popular in the U.S., Canada and Europe.
“Some people wanted us to be a joke, but those who knew the sport and understood athletics understood how serious we were and what a great accomplishment we had.”
Doug E. Doug played a character based on Chris Stokes in “Cool Runnings.” Stokes said that although the movie took lots of liberties with the true story--"I had no [dread-] locks like Mr. Doug had"--he also said, “The movie’s spirit was very much ours.”
Stokes said he is still convinced that with enough funding, the Jamaicans can have a competitive team. “We, the first team, just wanted to win some races, we just wanted to be a good team.
“Now we have a two-man team, and our men have won the push competition; we won it the last two years. I expect our team to be the fastest-starting team. But to finish you need the best equipment and training, and that we don’t have yet.”
Stokes has two daughters, 11-year-old Jalissa and 6-year-old Natalia. “Talia likes to wear my helmet,” Stokes said. “Now that there’s women’s bobsled, I’d like to get a Jamaican women’s team together too. Maybe we can have two generations of Stokes bobsledders.”