The sunny island nation of Jamaica garnered global headlines when it announced in 1987 that it planned to field a bobsled team in the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary.
Jamaica, better known for reggae and marijuana than for snow, was an unlikely competitor. However, its entry was carefully reasoned and was intended as more than a publicity stunt. The founders of the team realized that the initial sprint in bobsledding counts for a lot and that Jaimaica, which has a tradition of good sprinting, might be able to compete.
Initial efforts to form the team were spearheaded by a man named William Maloney, a failed U.S. sprinter who was living in Jamaica. He recruited a runner named Dudley Stokes, then a pilot in the Jamaican Air Force and a solid track-and-field athlete, and together they raided the military for talented sprinters. Dudley's brother Chris was an early recruit.
Their initial foray into global competition was not a success. The team came in last place in the 1988 Olympics. However, the media loved them. They were featured in Sports Illustrated and countless other magazines, and endorsement deals soon followed. Disney bought the rights to make a movie about the team. The film, called "Cool Runnings" bore little resemblance to reality, but taught a family-friendly message about teamwork and the rewards to persistence. It also brought another round of publicity, and Jamaican Bobsled Team members appeared on the David Letterman show and many others.
Meanwhile, the team continued to work towards the 1992 Olympics. Their performance there was better than in Calgary, but not great. (See my synopsis of results at the bottom).
"We may not look like much, but we work very hard," said Dudley Stokes, founding team member and the team's driver since 1988. "We may have fun, but we take our jobs seriously."
Bobsledding is an expensive sport and even a small team like Jamaica's runs up expenses of $250,000 per year. Luckily, the Jamaican Bobsled Team continues to enjoy corporate sponsorship, including that of Sandals Resorts International and Jamaican brewer Red Stripe. This allows them to buy high quality European bobsleds and training equipment. In addition, they make a great deal from the sale of t-shirts and other merchandise. You can buy yourself some swag at http://www.jamaicanbobsled.com/merchandise.html
After their mediocre 1992 Olympics, the Jamaican Bobsled Team had a great run in the 1994 games, and finished in 14th place in the 4 man event. This put them ahead of the Americans, the Russians, and the French teams. They established a training base in Wyoming and some sportwriters considered them to be top-10 or even medal contenders for the 1998 games.
Unfortunately, it did not work out so well, and the Jamaican Bobsled Team turned in its worst performance since Calgary ten years earlier.
The last members of the original team retired by 1999, and original team member Chris Stokes was elected president of the Jamaica Bobsled Federation.
Women's bobsledding has been added to the Winter Olympics roster, and the Jamaicans have a team for that too. As with the men's team, the female bobsledders comes mostly from the Jamaican military.
Though they have a winter base, they continue to train much of the year back home. Though they have no snow there, they work with weights and race on the track, and push a modified bobsled with wheels.
In 2001 Jamaica won the two-man event at the World Push Championships.
The 2002 Winter Olympics were another washout but the Bobsledding community has to take these guys seriously. As long as they can continue to raise the money, they might appear at the top of the sport.
And as much as I resist drawing simple morals from stories like this, you have to admit that if Jamaica can field a championship bobsled team, the rest of us ought to be able to get a lot done too.
1988 Olympics - last place
1992 Olympics - 24th in 4 man, 36th of 46 in 2 man teams
1994 Olympics - 14th in 4 man, ahead of the U.S., the Russians, the French. 2 man team disqualified for being overweight.
1998 Olympics - 29th of 36 in 2 man. 21 of 32 in 4 man.
2001 Gold in the two-man event at the World Push Championships
2002 Olympics - 28 of 38 in 2 man. DNE in 4 man.
Associated Press February 20, 1994
Austin American-Statesman, January 16, 1998