Douglas Thmopson - Author and International Journalist

Cool Runnings Click To Enlarge


Cool Runnings

Daily Express 3rd November 1991

Way up South Camp Road and over a couple of dusty playing fields from downtown Kingston, Jamaica's clapboard jungle where it's as  easy  to  buy  a  little "wacky baccy" as a "Bat-mon" T-shirt, there's a little bit of magic in the humid tropical atmosphere. Here the heat is as incessant as disco rap and the lifestyle reflects it. Horns blare, busmen shout at the goats and dogs playing hazard games in the traffic as it winds along bumpy roads lined with impressive but crumbling Victorian buildings. Fruit, vegetables, watches, cigarettes and brightly coloured clothes spill across King Street from the blankets of their vendors. This is a noisy, disorganised, bureaucracy-locked place. It is also an ongoing festival of parties, parades and rum punch under shady palms.

From here the Olympic icemen cometh? It seems absurd, an obsession as crazy as Ahab's, but the Jamaicans are going for a major win in a cold-weather speciality sport: bobsleigh racing. And they are extremely serious in their challenge. "We're not like Eddie the Eagle," says team manager George Fitch, a former US diplomat and now a consultant to developing economies. For Jamaicans, it's not enough to be taking part; they aim to win, undeterred by the fact that the Cresta Run is several thousand miles - and 90 degrees Fahrenheit - away.

Fitch runs the team with Will Maloney, an easy-going American emigre from the West Coast with business interests in Jamaica. It was over several samplings of Red Stripe and local rum that Fitch and Maloney decided that Jamaican athletes would be naturals for the bobsleigh at the Winter Olympics. But, unlike most pub ideas, it still seemed a good one the next day.

But how? Switzerland, Germany and the rest were the masters of precision, smoothly speeding to victory much of the time. America, not one of the sport's leaders, nevertheless spends more than one million dollars a year on its team. How much could Fitch and Maloney raise?

"We didn't have a clue," says Fitch. "Will's well known to local business people so we figured we'd get a little help there. And we did. We got a little help. But we came up with T-shirts and dances and concerts and all that sort of thing to raise money. The annual budget - let's say the money we have to spend on training and airlines and accommodation - is about $50,000 dollars."

"There might not be snow in Jamaica but these boys are perfect for bobsleigh," says Maloney. "A fast start is the real important thing to a fast run and this island is famous for its sprinters. Just wait till you see the boys go."

The Jamaican entry into the big time was, however, more Ice Follies than Winter Olympics. In 1988, while Eddie the Eagle fooled for Britain on the ski slopes, the Jamaican four-man sleigh registered some impressive speeds before crashing and being ignominiously disqualified. The two-man team was 29 places behind the winner-although they were ahead of a dozen other more experienced competitors.

"We're very much the under-dogs, the little team," says Fitch explaining. "In America they can get a major sponsorship and use the money for the best equipment. They've spent more than half a million dollars developing a sleigh with a more aerodynamic design. Look at what we train on."

It is, indeed, a sad sight. The wheeled trolley seems to be pieces of metal which, although freshly painted, appear to be held together more by goodwill than by design.

But at the Jessie Ripoll Primary School on South Camp Road it might have been Concorde. This was what was going to help Jamaica win gold at the Winter Olympics: the vehicle might be a touch tarnished but the team's Olympic spirit shines bright. Headmistress Sister Shirley Chung thought her 926 pupils should see the island's future Olympic heroes in action, and the pupils turned on the cheers and hollering like a rock concert crowd. "Gold, gold, gold," they chanted.

Big brakeman John McFarlane, one of the powers of the team, returned the applause reggae-style with the team's theme song Hobbin' And A Bobbin' singing: "We b^e trainin', gainin', strainin* and painin.' But we ain't complainin'."

McFarlane is in the army, as are his teammates Miller Hart and Jerome Lewis. Deion Smith is a student and Micky Mclntosh, the practical joker of the group, is a gym instructor. The squad is led by Eddie Murphy-lookalike and team captain Dudley Stokes.
In aerobic classes Stokes, who runs his own helicopter company, is good-natured about his team's chances. "We're in training, we know what we're doing and we are working hard. We know what other people are thinking and we're out to wipe the smiles off their faces."

They're the little guys, feisty in the face of adversity. If you think this whole business sounds like a Disney movie you're right: it will be one by next summer. The British writing team of Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais (responsible for The Likely Lads, Porridge and umpteen films) have already started researching the project. They were here in Kingston the other week and production of the film will start at the beginning of the year. But don't expect them to come up with a fairytale ending - Hollywood wants to concentrate and reflect the spirit of the team as much as their achievements. "I think we were attracted to the craziness and absurdity of it all. The Jamaican bobsleigh story is very upbeat and fun," says Clement.

"The story has been optioned for the movies before," says George Fitch, adding: "There were some versions that implied the team was being exploited, that the team's American coaches were the bad guys. There is none of that and there will be no sense of it in the Disney film as I understand it." He makes his point plain: "The only gold we want is gold medals."

Disney's movie-makers face a tough deadline -as do the athletes themselves, who this weekend begin competing in the World Cup in Calgary. The 11 members of the team flew out to Canada last weekend, where they had a race-off and push-off to select the six-man A team. On 12 November they will be competing for the World Cup in Wittenberg and then on to Innsbruck, competing from 25 November to 2 December. They then return to Calgary to meet up with the B team before returning to Jamaica, where they will be back to training on wheels.

Then it's back to the ice in Germany and the World Cup and European championships in lC6nigsee from 23 January to 1 February. And a week later, the pursuit of Olympic gold in Albertville, France, begins in earnest.

"I don't know how we are going to do, but I do know I'm going to be angry if we don't place well," says John McFarlane, sitting with two of the Jesse Ripoll pupils on his left knee (which is big enough to accommodate a couple more).

Ricky Mclntosh agrees: "We have an edge, we are hungry for it. I know all teams want to do well, but this has become a matter of pride for us."

"It's also becoming part of national pride," adds Bill Maloney. "People are beginning to wake up to the team. And can you imagine what the movie is going to do? These boys are stars already but that will shoot them even higher.

"In America they're squabbling over money and who should be in the team - they want big-name athletes to attract sponsors - and we're just getting on with the job.

"Sure, I'd love some sponsor to come in and help us," he laughs. "But then, when we started out, we had guys singing on street corners to raise money."

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