George Fitch and William Maloney, two Americans, who had business and family connections in Jamaica were the brainchild behind the Jamaican bobsled team. As the story goes, they happened upon a push cart derby race. The Jamaican push cart is a wooden cart that is primarily used to carry wares in the marketplace and every year, they are spruced up and raced down a winding mountain road. The event reminded George and William of bobsledding-two guys careening down the side of a mountain in a cart. After discovering that a big part of a bobsled race was the start, the two men set out to mine some of the rich sprinting talent in Jamaica.
Supported by Mr. Michael Fennel, President of the Jamaica Olympic Association, the two gentlemen proceeded to create the Jamaica Bobsleigh Federation with George Fitch as its president. Their first major challenge was to recruit athletes to a sport that in more ways than one was alien to them. The obvious place to start was the Jamaican track team but crashed and burned in their efforts to convince some of Jamaica’s top flight athletes to switch sport. Their next stop was the Jamaica Defence Force and with the enthusiastic help of Colonel Ken Barnes was able to have a strong turn out by members of the Army among those who tried out for the team.
At the first recruitment meeting in September 1987, in Kingston, George Fitch gave an introductory talk on the sport to a room of about 40 potential bobsledders. He showed some of the equipment used in the sport but more importantly, he showed old film footage of some spectacular bobsled crashes. During the viewing, it was obvious that bobsleds were not the only things that were going downhill fast. Any confidence that many of the attendees had they were equipped to take on this new endeavor went downhill faster than any bobsled could. The next day only about half of the group turned up for the trials themselves.
Funded by George Fitch and the Jamaica Tourist Board, Captain Dudley Stokes, Lieutenant Devon Harris, (https://www.devonharris.com/about-international-motivational-keynote-speaker/) Private Michael White and the lone civilian, Samuel Clayton, were selected to spearhead the effort. After a weekend trip to Lake Placid, NY where they saw bobsled and a bobsled track for the first time, they returned to Jamaica where they practiced their push starts pushing a makeshift sled on wheels across a flat concrete surface on the army base. The team then journeyed to Calgary to train on a bobsled track for the first time. After six weeks, they traveled to Igls, Austria where they competed in one race before returning to Jamaica for Christmas. They then traveled back to Lake Placid, NY where they spent the month of January 1988. Frederick Powell and Caswell Allen also joined the team between November and January.
By this time the team began receiving attention from the North American media. The angle was predictable – Jamaica Bobsled, is this a media stunt? This attitude of the media did little to help the team in its struggle to be recognized by the Fédération International de Bobsleigh et de Tobogganing (FIBT). Behind cold shoulders and stony faces, the FIBT reluctantly admitted the Jamaica Bobsleigh Federation to its ranks. By the time the Olympics started, the popularity of the team was widespread and totally caught them off guard. The romantic attraction that many have with Jamaica, the effusive, congenial nature of the team members and the natural inclination that many has for the underdog endeared many to the team and only fueled its popularity even more.
Many around the world promoted a stereotypical view of the team— a laid back, dread-locked group of guys who were out to have the time of their lives. The team in the mean time was caught off guard by its popularity. A fund raising party held during the first week of the Olympics was hugely popular, their T-shirts and sweatshirts were the hottest items in Calgary. and the team’s song ‘Hobbin and a Bobbin’ was to be heard everywhere.
The task of public relations and sales fell to Freddie Powell who adopted this role naturally. He was soft-spoken, kind, bearded and was a reggae singer, ideal for public consumption. While the public hysteria over the team mushroomed, the matter of the Olympic competition remained fixed in the minds of the athletes.
Jamaica entered the two-man event. Driver Dudley Stokes and brakeman Michael White created Olympic history by being the first athletes to represent Jamaica in the Winter Olympics.
At the end of the four runs, over two days, the team sat in 35th place. That should have been the end of competitions for the team but true to its brazen, audacious nature, having never competed as a four-man team before; the team entered the four-man bobsled event. Once this decision was made, the first order of business was to find a suitable sled. The team eventually rented a used sled from the Canadians and was able to have in painted in Jamaican colors and ready days before the race.
The bigger challenge the team faced was how to forge a four-man bobsled team to compete at the Olympic Games in less than a week. While there were six athletes in Calgary. Freddy Powell was relishing his role as the team’s PR guy and selling t-shirts. Castle Allen, while a capable athlete seemed more interested in enjoying the night life. In one of its most brazen moves, the team recruited Dudley’s brother, Chris Stokes to the team. Chris was a Jamaican high school sprint champion who had a noteworthy collegiate athletic career at the Bronx Community College and the University of Idaho and was then in training for the 1988 summer Olympic Games selections in Jamaica. The fact that Chris had only come to the Olympic Games to watch his brother race and had never been in nor seen a bobsled would under normal circumstances completely eliminated him from consideration.
But the Jamaican audacity kicked in. In three days, the team taught Chris all they knew about pushing a bobsled and he immediately made a difference to the teams start times. Combined with the power of Devon Harris and the smooth speed of Michael White, the team was once again in a position to compete with the best.
As fate would have it, the US Olympic Hockey Team was eliminated earlier than the US media would have liked which left them with airtime and nothing for consumption by the US viewing public. They needed something exciting, different, non-threatening and entertaining. The Jamaica Bobsled team fit the bill. With the full attention of the American media, the popularity of the team was now at its zenith. Team members abandoned all plans for walking around outside the Olympic village not only for the fear of being mobbed but also because of the avalanche of requests for media appearances and photo shoots. The mountains of mail and constant phone calls all became unmanageable. The team was in the midst of a phenomenon that the best public relations agencies could not create, and that it could not control. Still, the focus of the athletes remained intense.
Things immediately went downhill in the four-man event. Although the sled looked shiny and new with a fresh coat of paint, it was well worn. As the team blasted off the blocks and headed down the hill at full speed; the push bar for Dudley Stokes collapsed.
The fact that he made it into the sled was an athletic feat unto itself. But to the world at large, it was further evidence that the team was not ready for that level of competition.
On the second run, Michael White had trouble sitting in the sled and was not able to settle in until about half-way through the second turn-one of the most egregious of rookie mistakes. The first day of competition ended with the first two runs. The team had gone to the top and had made it to the bottom. The fans were happy and the media had their fun. Although this was the first time the team was competing in a four-man race, it felt that it had performed no where near its potential and spent the night thinking about how it could improve for the next day.
An anxious yet expectant night gave way to the second day of competition which was bright and sunny. The team was energetic and was ale to remain focused despite the throng of fans clamoring for autographs and pictures. But shortly afterwards, dark clouds started to appear on the horizon
While walking the track as drivers always do before a training session or race and as he had done many times leading to that day; Dudley Stokes fell and hurt his left shoulder. Without a medical staff of its own, the team turned to the British physiotherapist who applied some cold spray to ease the pain. And while standing at the starting line waiting for the previous sled to clear the track , he was told that the national team coach had that morning left the Games. In front of millions of people, the team was at that moment at its loneliest. With only seconds to focus the team came together and with a collective energy committed itself to go forward, to finish the job. In an inspired moment the team started off the hill in the seventh fasted time for all competitors. Achieving speeds previously un-reached, Dudley Stokes lost control of the sled coming out of the Kreisel, — a 270-degree circular turn on the track and at approximately 85 miles per hour the sled crashed, pinning the drivers head against the inside wall and creating an echo that was heard around the world.
So close to doing what could not be done, the team did what the cynics expected. Crashed at the big show. The FIBT establishment was vindicated; they said that Jamaica was not prepared for the Olympics and the team proved them right. The media cast the team as jokers and ‘Sunday Sledders’. It was fun while it lasted. The time had come for the sideshow to make room for the real sledders. The founders, who had realized their prospective short-term goals, envisioned no future for the sport. Maloney obtained his Olympic experience by becoming a member of the Jamaican delegation and Fitch developed a thriving merchandising business and would subsequently have a movie, Disney’s ‘Cool Runnings’ made of the endeavor. The end of Jamaica Bobsleigh was in sight; the fifteen minutes were up.
The results of the team’s experiment into bobsledding pointed to one thing-quitting. However, it was exactly because of those results why the team decided that it had to find to way to keep going. Team members didn’t see themselves merely as four Jamaicans who were trying to bobsled-they saw themselves as athletes with the talent and the ability to become world class bobsledders. They were not just showmen nor media stunts, they were dedicated sportsmen committed to learning their craft.
Reluctantly, George Fitch agreed to stay on as the president of the Jamaica bobsleigh Federation after the 1988 Games. His contribution was invaluable.
Sepp Haidacher, who had befriended the team during their first trip to Innsbruck, Austria in 1987 was hired as coach in the Fall of 1989. Sepp has remained the Godfather of the Jamaica bobsled team ever since.
The size of the team also expanded. A few athletes were sent to bobsled driving school but the only one to excel was Devon Harris.
The 1992 Olympic Games were staged in Albertville, France and by the time those Olympics rolled around, interest in the team had waned significantly. In the two man event, the team of driver Devon Harris ( https://www.devonharris.com/devons-sampler-motivational-olympic-speaker/) and brakeman Ricky McIntosh finished in 35th place while Driver Dudley Stokes and brakeman Chris Stokes finished in 36th Place. The four-man team of Dudley Stokes, Ricky McIntosh, Michael White and Chris Stokes finished in 24th place. There were no crashes and no fanfare.
In 1993 Disney released Cool Runnigs, a movie loosely based on the exploits of the team during the 1988 Calgary Games. Directed by Jon Turteltaub, the filmed stared, Leon, Doug E. Doug, Rawle D. Lewis, Malik Yoba and John Candy. It was Candy's last film released in his lifetime.
The film debuted at No. 3 and at the time was, was the highest grossing live action film released under the Walt Disney Pictures banner. The film received positive reviews, and the film's soundtrack also became popular with Jimmy Cliff's cover of "I Can See Clearly Now" reaching the top 40 as a single in nations such as Canada, France, and the UK.
In 1993 the Federation embarked on a serious long- term venture for continued growth and development. Major Leo Campbell of the Jamaica Defence Force was appointed president of the JBF. HIs organizational skills and work ethic made him the right man to be at the helm of the JBF at the time.
The single most important decision made during this period was the hiring of Sam Bock as national coach. Sam, who worked exclusively with one of the Canadian teams as their private coach, was contracted just six weeks prior to the Olympic games.
Time was short and there was still a tremendous amount of work to be done. Sam’s focused; no-nonsense, intransigent style was well suited of the times. He didn’t tolerate debate. It was his way or no way. The team also benefitted tremendously from the addition of Wayne Thomas and Winston Watt to the roster of athletes in the fall of 1993. In very short order, they both proved themselves to be among the best pushers in the world.
In order to maximize the team’s potential in such a short period of time, the members were subjected to training 4-8 hours per day in total isolation in the former East Germany at a special push training facility.
The team for the 1994 Winter Olympic Games to be held in Lillehammer, Norway was selected. The athletes were:
The 1994 Olympic Winter Games got off to an ominous start when the 2 man team of Dudley Stokes and Wayne Thomas was disqualified for an overweight sled. A last minute change in equipment led to the combined weight of the sled and crew surpassing the allowable limit by a minute amount.
The four-man competition provided another opportunity for Jamaica to demonstrate that they can bobsled with the best and on the first day of competition turned in a creditable performance.
On the second day of that race, and the final day of the Olympic Games, the team shocked everyone by placing 10th in both runs ahead of Günther Huber, the Italian bronze medallist in the two-man race , former Swiss national champion, Christian Meili and a slew of other powerful teams. Not only did Jamaica surprise everyone with its recently developed world class start, they also drove the highly technical track well to finish in 14th place.
The result placed Jamaica ahead of the Americans, French, Russians and one of the Italian teams. In fact, Jamaica finished 8th nation overall in those Olympics. Their amazing result vaulted Jamaica into the elite of the sport, the “Top Fifteen” best bobsleigh teams in the world. The events at the Lillehammer Olympics proved to be one of the biggest upsets in bobsledding history and arguably in the history of sporting contests between nations.
This achievement, coupled with the media hype from the release of the movie ‘Cool Runnings’ served to enhance the image of the athletes worldwide. The team had dreamt, suffered and overcome. By now, the FIBT, which was under new and forward thinking leadership, was among the first to congratulate the Jamaican team. The media generally became respectful in its comments though the American media seemed to be searching for ways to sneak out of the corner in which it had painted itself. If we were jokers and we had beaten America, then what was America?
A Dream Deferred
The team had overcome many obstacles and had come a long way. The results in Lillehammer only serve to whet their appetites and motivate them even more in the quest for an Olympic medal. The team had overcome numerous obstacles and had come a long way. The goal of standing on the medal podium in the Olympics seemed within reach.
Sam Bock remained as national coach and devised an elaborate development program to bring the team into medal contention by the 1998 Nagano games. At the start, things improved quickly and encouragingly and then fell back. The team would pick pup a little momentum again before falling back. By early 1997 team morale was at an all time low and relationships were strained. The dream was slipping with each passing day.
Chris Stokes, who was elected President of the JBF in 1995 rejoined the team as an athlete. It soon became clear to all that the situation was untenable and in December of 1997 the team severed ties with Sam Bock.
With six weeks to go before the Olympic Games, the team found itself struggling and without a coach. Sepp Haidacher intervened and secured the services of Gerd Leopold, former German national coach, and coach of the Olympic 4-man champion to work with Jamaica through the Nagano Games. Leopold, brought a degree of unity and commitment to the team which was absent for many years. By the time the team competed in Japan, it had made up for much of what was lost and finished a respectable 21st in the 4-man competition with the same team of Dudley Stokes, Winston Watt, Chris Stokes and Wayne Thomas that competed in 1994.
Devon Harris ( https://www.devonharris.com/keynote-presenter-top-corporate-speaker/) had returned to the program after an extended absence and worked hard to prepare himself for 2-man competition. His training was assisted by the tremendous support received from the town of Evanston Wyoming under the encouragement of Paul Skog. In difficult circumstances and against the odds Harris performed creditably to post a 29th place finish, the best of any Jamaican two-man team at that level.
The 1997-98 season marked the tenth season of Jamaica’s participation in the sport of bobsleigh. During that time, years of struggle and disappointment were rewarded with moments of triumph. Perhaps no single event signaled the triumph of Jamaica Bobsleigh more than Jamaica’s hosting and staging in 1999 of the FIBT’s annual congress, the highest law making body of the sport. The circle had been closed. Between the end of 1998 and mid 1999, Chris Stokes, Dudley Stokes, and Devon Harris, the last three remaining active athletes from the 1988 team retired from international competition. An era had ended. More than any other, the retirement of Dudley Stokes created a vacuum. For ten years he was the face, the voice, and the inspiration behind the Jamaica Bobsleigh story.
Chris Stokes was re-elected president of the Jamaica Bobsleigh Federation in 1998 and immediately implemented a program to invest in the future of Jamaica Bobsleigh.
A new constitution was put in place, which formalized and enhanced the governing guidelines for the sport in Jamaica. It was acknowledged that the advancement of the sport would require drastic change. To that end,Trond Knaplund, of Norway was hired as the national coach. His first undertaking was to embark on an aggressive recruitment program across the island. This process led to the selection of an impressive cadre of young athletes who were expected to form the foundation of the program through the 2002 Olympic Games and beyond.
In 2000, the Jamaica bobsled team of Winston Watt and Lascelles Brown won the gold medal in the World Push Championships in Monaco. The women’s team of Porsha Morgan and Jennifer Cole won the gold medal in the women’s event. The women’s results were especially encouraging. Women’s bobsledding were being added to the Olympic Program in Salt Lake City 2002 and with a relatively level playing field, Jamaica fancied its chances of making it on the podium. However, those dreams stalled after Porsha Morgan suffered injuries on the track in WInterberg, Germany during the opening round of the 2001-2002 World Cup Circuit.
At the 2002 Olympic Winter Games, Jamaica's two-man team of Winston Watt and Lascelles Brown set an Olympic start record of 4.78 seconds and finished in 29th place.
Despite recruiting several talented athletes and investing heavily in them, Jamaica failed to qualify for the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy, or the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, BC.
After his superb start in Salt Lake City two-man event and his failed bid to qualify to 2006 Games, Winston Watt came out of retirement to pursue his Olympic dream one more time. Against insurmountable odds, Watt at 46 years old became the oldest person to ever qualify to compete in Olympic bobsledding. He along with his brakeman Marvin Dixon, finished in 29th place in Sochi
After the Sochi Olympics, Devon Harris (https://www.devonharris.com/overview/) assumed responsibilities as Secretary General of the Jamaica Bobsled Federation with the goal of developing and transforming the next generation of Jamaican bobsledders into World and Olympic Champions. He created the Jamaica Bobsled Foundation, a not for profit Fundraising arm of the Jamaica bobsled team based in New York.
He has also undertaken an extensive recruiting drive in order to identify new athletes. He has revived the women’s program and added a skeleton program.
With this new crop of talented athletes and a renewed focus, the Jamaica bobsled federation has every intention of living up to its moniker “The Hottest Thing On Ice” developing a program that is is as competitive as it is exciting.