The Jamaican bobsled team has been absent from the Winter Olympic Games for 12 years. They missed qualifying by only one place in 2006 for the Turin, Italy games and in 2010 for Vancouver, British Columbia.
But, they're back!
The original team (Devon Harris, Dudley Stokes and Michael White, with alternates Freddie 'Reggae' Powell and Caswell Allen) qualified for the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. They shot to fame because they were the ultimate underdogs, and we all love an underdog! Not only did they represent a tropical nation in a cold-weather sport, but they had to borrow sleds from other nations in order to compete.
While at the Games, they decided to try the four-man event as well, but had to scramble to reassemble a team because Powell and Allen were ruled out. They succeeded in substituting Stokes' brother, Christian, and the rest is history. The four-man team didn't officially finish because it crashed during one of the four runs, but it became the inspiration for the 1993 movie, Cool Runnings. For a nice recap of the 1988 events, read this article from ESPN.CO.UK.
Entertainment aside, there's no ignoring the phenomenal success of Jamaican athletes in the Summer Olympic Games, but can they be competitive in snowy, icy sports? As a matter of fact, they can, and they are serious contenders!
In 1992, the Jamaican bobsled team returned to the Winter Olympics in Albertville, France, but finished poorly. They qualified again for the 1994 Winter Olympic Games in Lillehammer, Norway. There, their 4-man sled team surprised many of its critics by finishing in 14th place, ahead of the U.S., Russia, Australia, France, and two sleds from Canada.
In 2000, the Jamaican bobsled team took the gold medal at the World Push Championships in Monaco. At the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City , the 2-man team of Winston Watts (pilot) and Lascelles Brown (brakeman), set the Park City bobsled track record and the Olympic record for the push-start segment of the 2-man race at 4.78 seconds. So, yes, Jamaica CAN produce world-class Winter Olympic athletes!
After competing in 2002, Winston Watts came out of retirement to get a team together for Sochi. For the last two years, he has been using up his life savings to pay for his teammates to fly from Jamaica to the U.S. for training. The original plan for a regular four-man team was scrapped when no major sponsors materialized, and the funding problems caused them to cut back to a two-man team.
The Jamaican bobsled team for the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics has five members: pilot Winston Watts (from May Pen), brakeman Marvin Dixon (from Rockfort), backup Wayne Blackwood (from Kingston) who will compete if needed, coach Thomas Samuel, and “mission chief” Chris Stokes, from the original 1988 team. Tom Samuel is a former Canadian National Bobsleigh Pilot/Driver and fellow competitor of Winston Watts.
Worldwide Fans Come Through
The original 1988 team had been backed by the Jamaican Olympic Association and wealthy donors, but few had stepped up to help this time. Germany had donated a sled (which needed runners), but they were still $80,000 short.
The team couldn't afford to race the World Cup circuit this season or fly to Switzerland to compete in the final qualification runs. So Watts and Dixon sat home and hoped that they had accumulated enough points in lower-tier races in North America to make the cut. (They had 5th and 7th place finishes in their last two races.) And, amazingly, they qualified.
Still short of funds with only weeks to go before the Games, there was no way they would be able to make the trip to Sochi because they couldn't cover their travel expenses or buy the additional sets of sled runners they needed.
With the help of a savvy fan who was familiar with "crowdfunding," a fundraising campaign was set up for the team through Crowdtilt and, in three short days, raised over $129,000 from 2,800+ supporters in 52 different countries around the world.
The team ended the campaign early because the donations were more than they dreamed of and Samsung had also stepped forward as a sponsor. And, eventually, Jamaican Olympic officials said they and the Sochi Organizing Committee would cover all travel costs for the team. Imagine that. The team plans to use excess funds to support future bobsled teams.
Glitches on the Way to the Games
Travel snarls on the East Coast of the U.S. caused the Jamaican bobsled team to arrive in Sochi ahead of their luggage and equipment. Other teams contributed clothing, but without their sliding suits, helmets or the expensive runners for their two-man sled, they had to miss their Wednesday training runs.
The team was back in business after their equipment arrived late Wednesday evening, and they got their first runs in on Thursday at the Sanki Sliding Center.
So, it looks like hard work, resilience and the power of some online love has paid off. Big up, Jamaican Bobsled Team! We wish you every success. Bring some Jamaican sunshine to that bobsled track!
How to Follow the Jamaican Bobsled Team
The competition begins next Sunday, February 16, with Heat #1 at 11:15AM (EST), followed by the second heat about 12:50PM (EST). The competition continues on Monday, February 17, with Heat #3 at 9:30AM (EST) and the final heat at 11:05AM (EST).