Two American businessmen, George Fitch, the first President of the Jamaica Bobsleigh Federation and businessman William Maloney, who at the time both lived in Jamaica, formed the JBF. These opportunistic and enterprising young men latched on to a novel idea one night in Kingston. Having seen the local pushcart derby and noting its similarity with bobsledding, and recognizing the abundance of athletic talent in Jamaica, both gentlemen concluded what was not so obvious, that Jamaica and bobsledding was a natural fit. Supported by Mr. Michael Fennel, President of the Jamaica Olympic Association, the two gentlemen proceeded to but in place the elements of a dream that was destined to become a legend.
The first challenge was to recruit athletes for the program. Despite the appeal of the opportunity to compete in the Olympic games, this challenge proved formidable.
(Part of poster used to advertise ‘Tryout’ for the first Jamaica Bobsleigh team)
At the first recruitment meeting, the story goes that George Fitch gave an introductory talk on the sport to a hall full of curious and hopeful young athletes. He then proceeded to turn off the lights to show a video clip on the sport, which had a few crashes, some of them quite frightening. When the lights came back on, George found himself standing in an almost empty hall. Desire turned to dread and men fled. The organizer’s determination to go on despite this early setback was to come to characterize Jamaica Bobsleigh. Running out of options, the founders approached the Jamaica Defence Force to ask for volunteers, or to have prospects ‘volunteered’ as only the army could do. Out of this came the first stalwarts of the Jamaica Bobsleigh team, Dudley Stokes, Devon Harris, and Michael White. Through various other selection activities other athletes were added, Freddie Powell and Clayton Solomon. This initial athlete selection was completed by October 1987. Caswell Allen was to join the team later.
Funded by George Fitch and the Jamaica Tourist Board, the athletes embarked on a ‘crash’ course in bobsledding. The comfort of running and weight training in Jamaica was soon replaced with the harsh realities of bobsled training in Lake Placid, New York, and Igls, Austria. Dudley Stokes by this time had been selected as the Driver for the team based on his exceptional concentration and helicopter piloting experience. Learning was difficult and painful. The team only had access to poor equipment and crashed repeatedly. Coaches were retained from the USA and gave an immediate boost to the team.
Things improved even more with the capable assistance of Sepp Haidacher of Austria who became and remains the team’s godfather. By this time the team began to receive attention from the North American media. The angle was predictable – Jamaica Bobsleigh - what a laugh. 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). Where, in true Jamaican style, the team expected a warm greeting and welcome from the FIBT, instead it found cold shoulders and stony faces. Determined, the JBF succeeded in entering both a 2-man and 4-man team in the XVth Olympic Winter Games that was held in Calgary, Canada in 1988.
By the start of the 1988 Winter Olympic Games the popularity of the team was widespread based on grassroots support from those who favoured the unusual and the underdog. Supporters around the world formed the team into their own conceptions, a popular one being that the team was made up of dread-locked, fearless, semi-athletes out to conquer Babylon. 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 and T-shirts and sweatshirts were now being sold by the box-load, 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. First on the schedule was the 2-man competition.
(Dudley Stokes and Michael White create Olympic history by being the first athletes to represent Jamaica in the Winter Olympics.)
Driver Dudley Stokes and brakeman Michael White were entered for that competition. At the end of the four runs, the team placed 35th. Relieved by actually doing, at least in part, what the team set out to do, the mood in the camp relaxed and focus easily shifted to the 4-man event. As history 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. Jamaica Bobsleigh 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 for fear of being mobbed. Requests for appearances, mail, 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. Early in the training for the 4-man event, an injury was sustained by one of the pushers. This development was a cause for great concern, as the coaching staff believed that the team stood a good chance of posting a respectable finish in this event. With a weakened team, the opportunity to prove the sceptics wrong was threatened. Faced with this scenario, team captain Dudley Stokes made the bold suggestion that his brother, Chris Stokes be recruited onto 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 was not at the Olympic Games and had never been in or seen a bobsleigh would normally be factors which would eliminate one from consideration for competitive duties but the coaching team agreed to give it a try. Upon arrival, Chris 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.
(The 1988 4-man team practices pushing together for the first time at the Olympic Games. L-R, Dudley, Devon (hidden), Chris, Michael))
Things went wrong from the beginning in the 4-man event. On the first run, the push bar of the worn sled collapsed while driver Dudley Stokes was at full speed running down hill. The fact that he made it into the sled was an athletic feat unto itself. On the second run, Michael White had trouble sitting in the sled and was in an almost erect posture well into the first turn of the run. 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. Yet, the team spent the night reflecting on how it could improve for the next day. There was no more time for theory. All that mattered now was to do what the team knew how to, to execute under pressure. The second day of competition was bright and sunny; the team arrived at the track focused and energetic. Again, the fragile optimism was soon dashed. Driver Dudley Stokes fell on his walk up the track and immobilised his left shoulder, determined to go on he applied some cold-spray to ease the pain and walked to the starting line only to be 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 huge 365-degree 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.
( Jamaica’s 4-man sled grinds to a halt after a spectacular crash at the 1988 Olympic Winter Games)
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 our sideshow to make room for the real sledders. The founders, who had realised 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 endeavour. The end of Jamaica Bobsleigh was in sight; the fifteen minutes were up.