Cool Runnings Again: Beating the Unbeatable

After 24 years, the Jamaican four-man bobsled team has at last qualified for the Winter Olympics again. 

When I saw the Jamaican bobsled team in the 1988 Winter Olympic Games, I was completely in awe of their story. It stuck with me through the years, continuing to inspire me whenever it ran across my mind. A couple of days ago, the story of the new four man bobsled team from Jamaica making the Winter Olympics popped up while I was watching the news on TV, and I was suddenly inspired all over again! It fast forwarded me back 34 years with the same spirit, and so I decided to dig deeper into the history and write a post about it. These guys once again showed me that where there’s a will, there’s a way.

It’s a feat that is almost unimaginable, but it’s one that we need right now. We need to feel the rush of inspiration and the belief that anything is possible. Particularly now, as we are all looking for things to fuel our passion after the last two years have drawn us through the wringer. 

This is the underdog’s underdog story. It gets people’s attention because of the juxtaposition of a warm Caribbean island and the frozen bobsled track. It keeps our attention because of the heart of sport that it represents. 

Against the odds

There are two ways that Olympic athletes inspire us when they get up to perform: either they beat an unbeatable opponent, or they beat an unbeatable situation. In this case, the athletes are going against a situation – climate. That is one massive opponent. 

Bobsled is a sport that is about speed, teamwork, and merging with equipment in frozen conditions. The Winter Olympics are already far more dangerous than the Summer Olympics, and while bobsled is not the most dangerous event, it’s no walk in the park either. The rate of injury for bobsledders is around 20% – one in five! Compare that to fencing, which has an injury rate of just 2.5%. The ice is slippery, the bobsled is heavy, and the riders are going faster than most of us do on the highway.

With all of this, the Jamaican team continues to beat the odds. It is not convenient to train in a warm climate for a winter sport! That’s obvious. What makes this story so remarkable is that these bobsledders do it anyway. They are so passionate about the sport that they are willing to train however they can to get that feeling of running down the track. It’s a passion that we all would like to emulate. 

Cool Runnings

“Feel the rhythm, feel the rhyme, get on up – it’s bobsled time!”

If you have seen the 1993 Disney film about the Jamaican bobsled team, then odds are you’re smiling after reading that line. If you have never seen the film Cool Runnings, you are missing out on a fantastic film that offers a lighthearted but deeply heartfelt Olympic story. It’s still one of the top 10 highest-grossing sports comedies of all time, in league with movies like Waterboy and Talledega Nights. Starring John Candy and Doug E. Doug, the film is a lighthearted and hilarious look into the world of Olympic sports. 

The film is based on the real events of the 1988 Calgary Olympics, which did see the Jamaican bobsled team compete. It’s ok that the famous line was never uttered by the actual Jamaican bobsled team.  Most of the story that Disney put on film is fictionalized, but the essence is real. There was a group of Jamaican runners who were put together, but they were recruited through the army. They did have an American coach. They did work hard and fast to make it to the Olympics in just a few months. The men who were recruited onto the team had no experience with the intensity of bobsledding, and they had to overcome their lack of experience and the real hard crashes that are part of the sport. During their run in the Olympics, they crashed at 85mph. This crash disqualified their run, but the team got up and carried their sled out across the finish line. All of that is real, and all of that is impossible to ignore as a truly remarkable Olympic story! 

Still, the movie does give us a great platform and a fun story that’s loosely based on all of it. You’ll find the film on Disney+ if you want to check it out for the first time, or maybe to walk down memory lane. It holds up surprisingly well thirty years later. Wonderful for a pick-me-up and a jolt to get you back to dreaming big. 

Surprising, but not surprising

Team Jamaica qualified for not one, but three events for the 2022 Winter Olympics. The four-man bobsled, the two-man bobsled, and the women’s monobob. Never before have they qualified for three events! Beijing is set to be a huge boost for this team, and it comes after many long years of hard work and diligent training. 

So often, we miss the background of hard work that is behind something like this. The story gets lost in the headline. It’s not as though bobsledding has stopped for the last couple of decades!

Though this is the first time in almost a quarter-century that Jamaica has qualified for the four-man bobsled race, they have been working and qualifying in the years since in other bobsled events. Jamaica qualified for the Olympics in two-man bobsled seven times, including that 1988 debut, where they were 30th out of 41 teams. The two-man team finished 14th in the 1992 Albertville Games, ahead of teams from the United States and Russia. The last time there was a four-man team competing in the Olympics was in 1998 in Nagano, Japan. 

The success has extended in the Winter Olympics for Jamaica, who will also have an alpine skier in the Games. What an incredible thing!

Generational bobsledding

The original bobsled team had never even seen a bobsled track before, but that is no longer the case. They train with a cadre of experienced bobsledders from their own country now. There’s legacy here in this tight-knit sport (not unlike what we see so often in fencing!). Women’s bobsled in Jamaica saw NaTalia Stokes, daughter of original Jamaican bobsledder Chris Stokes and niece of original Jamaican bobsledder Dudley Stokes, come to the team in 2014 and 2018. Though she didn’t make it to compete in the Olympics, she did have a deep passion for the sport. 

Of the movie, she told the BBC “The lady that plays the grandma reminds me so much of my grandma, because she’s so strong and loves us so much and motivates us. I think they got that character spot on.” Bobsled is not an easy sport. Crashes are serious and present a true danger of injury. Of that aspect, NaTalia shared her grandmother’s thoughts. “She’s just like, ‘Oh Lord, why can’t we have normal kids and grandchildren that just go to school and want to be lawyers or doctors? Why do we have people who want to go down a hill in a sled? Of all the things you could have chosen…’” She continues, “My grandma had to watch her son crash and she doesn’t want to see that happen to me. But she’s really supportive and I love her for that.”

Over the last twenty-four years, a culture of bobsled training has risen up in Jamaica. Bobsledders go on to train other bobsledders. Children of bobsledders join the sport. There’s a federation that raises money to support the sport and that organizes training in Jamaica. Though they can do a lot of their training at home, they have to go to cold tracks like the facility in Lake Placid, NY to really prepare. Travel is expensive and so are facilities. Bobsled is not funded by the government, so the team has to make it happen.

The generational aspect extends to the affection that people have all over the world for Jamaican bobsledding. One really amazing thing that’s happened through all of this is that people are so invested in this team! In 2014, the team qualified for the Olympics, but they didn’t have enough money to go. Crowdfunders raised almost $130,000 to get the team to go, more than three times the goal. 

People are invested in this team. We all love an underdog story, but even better than an underdog story is the story of a team that has kept on going in the face of adversity and unreasonable odds. Nothing beats the love of the sport that we see in a team like this. 

Parallels and insight   

There are so many parallels between sports, even fencing and bobsledding. Competition is competition, and there is never a straight path to the top of the podium. No one comes out of nowhere. It takes years to build a team, and it takes a pipeline to get athletes to the top. We’ve seen that very much in fencing in the United States, where the pipeline has been built through many years of coaching and clubs growing. 

The first time a Jamaican bobsled team ran in the Olympics was all the way back in the eighties! That event, and the movie that was made regarding their journey, Cool Runnings, resonated with me deeply all those years ago. I watched the movie over and over. It even inspired the title of my book about American fencing – From Cool Runnings to World Superpower: The Rise of American Fencing. What starts out as a joke transforms into a passion. 

American fencing was once not taken seriously in the wider world of fencing. The notion that an American team could make it to the top of the podium at the Olympics was once a laughable thought. Fencing was a traditional sport from Europe, and it was believed that great fencing had to come out of those great fencing schools on the continent. 

Over the last twenty years, that has totally changed. It is now accepted that American fencers are strong contenders for Olympic medals! This idea would have seemed outlandish for many years. In fact, there were a hundred years between Olympic gold medals for the United States in fencing! 1904 by Post Albertson in foil to 2004 by Mariel Zagunis in women’s saber. 

Honestly, the idea of American fencers being real gold contenders is not as crazy as Jamaican bobsledding, but it’s on the same spectrum. Perhaps that’s one reason that I personally find this whole story so remarkable and interesting.

The heart of inspiration

Part of what keeps us coming back to the Olympic movement, again and again, is the belief that anyone can rise to the top of the podium. Anyone can participate. It’s this essence of possibility that is the essence of our love of sport. 

Bobsledders become close to their sleds in the way that fencers become close to their swords. These pieces of metal are extensions of them, they facilitate their success and become part of their identity. The distinct nature of bobsledding becomes an identity, just as it does for fencers.

There are very few stories that rise to the level of inspiration that the Jamaican bobsled team rises to. I know that I will be cheering on the Jamaican team in Beijing! Here’s to a great run and a continuation of their incredible legacy.