Jamaican bobsledders face uphill struggle after going down in history

January 31, 1992|By Bill Glauber

They became the official novelty act of winter.

In a sport dominated by German aerospace engineers, Swiss pilots and Russian technicians, the Jamaican bobsled team added reggae and error at the 1988 Olympic Winter Games at Calgary.

They sold T-shirts. They cut a record called "Hobbin' and a Bobbin'." They rented a secondhand sled that wouldn't have passed inspection at a Soap Box Derby.

In their world television debut, they careened down an icy slope, got lost somewhere at 4Gs on a curve called Krisel and were last seen tumbling sideways across the finish line.

On their heads.

"We slid into history," Dudley Stokes said.

Since their last pileup made the blooper hall of fame, the Jamaicans haven't given up on their unlikely dream of creating Olympic glory.

Instead of sliding for gold at the 1992 Winter Games, which begin February 8, the Jamaicans will bring a more modest goal to Albertville, France. They'll try to complete their final race in the sled, instead of under one.

"The hope is to get rid of that cavalier, joke image," said Mr. Stokes, a helicopter pilot-turned-bobsled driver.

But comedy sells, especially at a sporting event that uses Beethoven's Ninth as mood music.

Few Americans are asking, "Whatever happened to [Olympic downhill ski champion] Pirmin Zurbriggen?"

The real drama of Calgary was waiting for the Jamaican bobsled team to crash, or wondering if a near-sighted English ski jumper named Eddie "The Eagle" Edwards actually could fly.

"We are still going," Mr. Stokes said. "But Eddie is out."

Since sliding on their heads in Calgary, the Jamaican bobsledders have appeared in a beer commercial, set up an 800 phone number and organized a fan club.

This year, they will have to compete for attention in a crowded Olympic curiosity shop. There will be bobsledders and luge teams from Puerto Rico, New Zealand, the U.S. Virgin Islands and Mexico.

And Prince Albert is back in the two-man bobsled, representing the country he'll someday rule, Monaco.

"We didn't know during the Calgary Games that the team would develop into a big story," Mr. Stokes said.

The story began when George Fitch, a former U.S. State Department official, was looking for a way to gain some free advertising for the Jamaican tourist industry. He looked to a mountaintop and discovered his ad campaign. Seeing hundreds of Jamaican kids race one another with wooden push carts, Mr. Fitch figured that a bobsled team could be put together.

So what if the only ice in Jamaica was used to mix drinks?

The Jamaican Defense Force was enlisted to aid the Olympic effort. Thirty volunteers were rounded up and brought to an auditorium to view a 15-minute bobsled highlight film of spills, crashes and injuries.

The survivors completed their first ride on Oct. 19, 1987.

"The stock market crashed," said Devon Harris, a pusher. "But we didn't."

This time, the Jamaicans want to be taken seriously.

But how can you?

When Mr. Stokes takes tourists on helicopter rides around Jamaica,he'll ask: "Did you see the Jamaican bobsled team that crashed at the last Olympics? I was the pilot."

They couldn't sing in key long enough to perform on their record. Like Milli Vanilli, studio singers had to be brought in.

"We are athletes first and foremost," Mr. Harris said. "Some of the promotional paraphernalia tends to detract from that. The money to continue with this bobsled depends on the image. It's a Catch-22 situation."

But underlying the jokes is a universal story of underdogs trying to succeed against enormous odds. Bobsled is a sport that not only calls for superb physical gifts, but also major investments in time and money. State-of-the-art sleds, refined by aircraft engineers, cost $30,000.

"Here are some guys operating with tremendous disadvantages, who have actually gone and gotten in the Games," Mr. Stokes said. "It is a huge achievement for us to turn up on the ice. People think, 'Boy, if these guys can go and get there, what am I waiting for?' It sticks with people."

He said the Games of Calgary "are something I'll look back on when I'm 65." He'll remember the races he finished. Others will recall the race that ended in a crash.

"The whole world, for a moment,stood in horror," Mr. Harris said. "I suppose they thought we were seriously hurt. We not only had to come out walking, we had to come out smiling."

They smiled their way to fame, if not fortune. But not everyone has heard of them. After an appearance on "CBS This Morning" earlier this month, the Jamaicans bumped into a former president, Richard Nixon.

Their conversation:

"We're the Jamaican bobsledders."

"Who?"

"The Jamaican bobsledders."

"You have a very nice country."

Right.

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