By Tomas Hill Lopez-Menchero
“Itook a bunch of pictures during the Olympics and lost my camera during the Olympics, so I never did see them.”
This detail barely registers as a footnote in Devon Harris’ account of the 1988 Winter Olympics following our 45-minute long discussion, but it sums up the scarcely believable story of the original Jamaican bobsleigh team. As one of the principal members of that side, however, Harris has a memory far clearer than any photograph.
He still remembers, for instance, his reaction when he first heard about the idea to create a Jamaican bobsleigh team.
“That it was the most absurd, ridiculous idea ever conceived by a man. I just remember thinking ‘No-one can get me to go on one of those things’.
“But interestingly enough, once the colonel, Alan Douglas, told me to go to the team trials and I knew I was going to the team trials, I didn’t know how I was going to do it but I just knew that I had to make the team.”
It is a story which has since been immortalised in the hugely popular 1993 film Cool Runnings. Harris points out there are “very few accuracies” in it, but even so, he is far from resentful.
“It says ‘Based on the true story of the Jamaican bobsled team’ and I think it should have read ‘Very loosely based’. I thought it was a good human interest story, it’s the kind of movie I like, stories about real people overcoming the odds to succeed.
“If you look at the bigger picture, it has given our story a really long life. There are a bunch of big stories from Calgary; there’s our story, there’s Eddie the Eagle, there’s Dan Jansen, there’s the Battle of the Carmens, Katerina Witt and Debi Thomas.
“Eddie just had a movie being released, but all of those stories were as big as ours. Ours turned out to be the biggest because we had a movie made five years afterwards.”
Harris started dreaming about running for Jamaica at the Olympics when he was 15. Playing football in elementary school, he was nicknamed Pelé by his classmates. But his first ambition was not a career in sports.
“Sports was never meant to be my main thing. My aspirations of joining the army started way before I knew anything about sports in that I grew up with a grandmother who was a fabulous storyteller.
“She told me many stories, but one of the ones that stuck was a story she told about soldiers and these amazing feet… that they could jump in these deep gullies and not break their legs. To a little five-year-old, that was just amazing.
“That really was the first goal, to be in the army, and the second one: to compete in the Olympics.”
Even after becoming an officer, he refused to abandon that second objective. With the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul on the horizon, he ran five miles every day before reporting for duty.
If Harris’ ambitions were slightly far-fetched, then his route to the Olympics was even more extraordinary.
George Fitch, Commercial Attaché for the American embassy in Kingston between 1985 and 1986, came up with the idea for a Jamaican bobsleigh team. Surprised at Jamaica’s non-involvement in the Winter Olympics given their obsession with the Summer Games, Fitch suggested bobsleighing because of the nation’s sprinting prowess.
He needed a team, however, and after approaching top athletes and sports clubs without success, he turned to the military. As the army’s 800m champion, Harris was one of the first in line.
“There’s a philosophy in the army that says officers must always participate,” he tells me. “So the colonel figured he’d send his young, fit officer to make up numbers, and it didn’t quite work out the way he anticipated because I went there with every intention to make the team.”
Harris was certain he would be part of the team before the official announcement in September 1987.
“The selections that Friday in September, whatever date that was… we were in Ocho Rios [Jamaica] on a trip, all the officers were. I wasn’t told officially yet that I’d made the team, I just knew that I had and I just kind of felt like Superman that day, flying around the beach in Ocho Rios.
“For me, I just remember counting down the days, especially when we got to January, I was just counting down the days because I could not wait.”
But the dream was almost over before it started. Harris and his team had met the International Bobsleigh and Skeleton Federation’s (IBSF) requirements for the Olympics by taking part in a race in Austria, but the IOC threatened to disqualify them 10 days before the Games in Calgary.
“They started making stuff up. They started [by saying] “You have to do one race”, and then we did the race. “Oh crap, they did the race!”, so then, of course, the ultimate power’s still with them.
“To be honest, these were not things that we, certainly I as an athlete, were fully aware of. If you can imagine, it was a gargantuan task ahead of us, learning this thing, and so that’s what we focused on, and then we just did what we were asked.
“We didn’t have enough experience, which is true, we didn’t have enough experience. [We] had no business being in a sled, we know that now, but you couldn’t have told us that then. And now the rules have changed significantly.”
Thanks to the intervention of Prince Albert of Monaco among others, the Jamaicans were allowed to compete. But as Harris says, “you’ll never have another Jamaican bobsled team, because nobody will be able to repeat what we did”.
How much training had they done prior to the Olympics?
“Not a whole lot. All of us, the four of us, that was really our first exposure to bobsledding. The team was selected in September of ’87, and the first time I went on a bobsled track was in Calgary in October of ’87.
“We trained in Calgary initially, then we went to Austria, spent maybe four weeks in Austria, did one race against the ‘B’ teams from some of the major nations, went home for Christmas, went back to Lake Placid, spent the month of January there, and then we went to the Olympics. That’s it.”
The team were greeted with scepticism before the Games, but they did not anticipate the reception they would receive when they touched down in Calgary.
“People are going through disbelief, they’re looking at us with a certain amount of incredulity, thinking there’s no such thing as a Jamaican bobsled team. And then the press started to creep out one by one.
“This was in October of ’87, and then, by the time we got back to Calgary in February ’88 for the Olympics, it was crazy, almost to the point of being distracting.
“One person would ask for an autograph because they recognise who we are, and then there’s a mob. You’re not saying no, you’re trying to [sign] all of them, and then you pull out, you extricate yourself, and 100 metres down the road: “Excuse me, excuse me! Sorry, I didn’t get one back there!” and then the whole hassle starts again.”
Harris and his teammates were originally only due to race in the two-man event, but, after competing in the two-man in Calgary, they wanted a fresh challenge. Despite never having raced in a four-man bobsleigh, they decided to try it.
There was just one problem: they needed another teammate to make up the four. Both stand-ins, Freddie Powell and Caswell Alan, were unavailable.
“Chris Stokes, who was not on the team, came to watch his brother [Dudley Stokes] race, and it was the week of the four-man event. We go “Hey, we should all enter the four-man so we can win a medal. Chris, you’re a sprinter, right?”
“So we recruited Chris that week, taught him everything we knew about pushing a sled in three days, which obviously, if you don’t know that much, you don’t need three days, right? I don’t know if we were bad teachers or Chris was a slow learner, but we taught him everything we knew about pushing a sled, and we entered.”
The four are presented as jokers for much of the film, but Harris says they were fully concentrated on the task at hand. The core trio of Harris, Dudley Stokes and Michael White came from the Jamaican Defence Force.
“Like every other group, there’s always some conflict. We started out with myself, Dudley Stokes, Michael White and Samuel Clayton. Sammy was the only civilian on the team at the time but he never made it to the Olympics, and so that’s an example of us just not gelling.
“Sammy was, I thought, talented but didn’t have the same commitment to working as hard as the rest of us did and we kind of parted company. After that, certainly the core group, [Chris] Stokes joined us during the Olympics, we were focused and we just got down to business.”
The first two heats in the four-man event were underwhelming for the Jamaicans, but then came the third heat, with nearly 40,000 spectators watching on. Harris tells the story of that day.
“We get to the track and go through our normal routine, took the sled up to the top, and Dudley walked the track, as drivers always do, and then we were just chilling in the warm house waiting for him to arrive. And then he arrives and he looks very unhappy, and what happened? He slipped on the track that morning and sprained his collarbone, this is before race time.
“The British physio guy… got the magic spray out and he’s good to go. So then we figured all is well, nothing to worry about.
“Then we get on the start line, and I did not know this until many years later, that, as we’re standing there ready to go down the track, George Fitch… comes to Dudley and complains to him that our coach, Howard Siler, had left the Olympics. Yeah, that’s probably something that you’re pissed about, but that’s not the time!”
Despite that disruption, they recorded a remarkable start time.
“On that day, the second day, the third heat, it all just came together. 5.35, I think, was the start of the top, [it] turned out to be the seventh fastest. The loading in the sled was perfect, you just [thought] “Yeah, this is it”.”
But then disaster struck after the eighth corner when the sled hit the wall. In the footage from the heat, you can hear the eerie silence from the crowd as the sled gets turned on its side.
“I’m sitting there right behind Dudley, in the second seat, head down in the sled. We came out of corner eight and we hit the wall, it’s never good to hit the wall but I’m thinking to myself ‘That’s fine, it’s a long straightaway between eight and nine, so we’ll be okay’.
“And then we hit the wall again, just before hitting the corner and getting onto corner nine… As you’re watching the tape, we’re kind of going in and out of focus of the camera, which is trained on the middle of the track.
“Then, as we came around the end, the sled was rising at the point where it should have been going down. So I’m not knowing any of this, I just know I’m in the sled and we’re coming around, and the next thing I know I’m on my head.”
Did he not fear for his life?
“My thought was ‘Wow, how embarrassing, we’ve just crashed in front of the entire world’. And I know how awful it looked on TV, [but] I wasn’t scared for my life at all, I was just embarrassed that we had crashed.”
In Cool Runnings, this is the moment where the Jamaicans pick up their sled and walk to the finish line with their pride intact as applause rings out. But this could not have been further from the truth for Harris as he led the team off the track, although people showed their support.
“We came to a stop, and I crawled out and I realised we hadn’t crossed the finish line so there was no finish time, the Olympics were done for us basically.
“Track workers came, and then we started walking on the breaking stretch, just trying to exit stage left as quickly as we could. But then, people just started to cheer… “We love you, we love you”.
“I was leading the pack, one guy reached over and shook my hand, I shook his hand and then I was shaking every other hand, heading for the breaking stretch. But yeah, it was the lowest point of the experience.”
Harris even describes returning home to Jamaica after the Olympics as a “scary thing”, but he was overwhelmed by the country’s response.
“Strangely enough, people were so supportive, they were just so happy with our effort.
“People were like “No, you guys did well, we have no snow and ice and look what you did!” People were supportive, they were awesome. The government made stamps with our faces on it, man.”
Although Harris sees that crash in the third heat as the nadir of the Games, he looks back on what the underdogs accomplished with “total pride”. They had left a legacy, and he went on to captain the side in the 1992 and 1998 Winter Olympics, which he describes as an “honour”. Harris did not participate in 1994, but Jamaica finished in 14th place in the four-man event, ahead of the United States, Russia and France.
“Especially after ’88, leading into ’92,” he says, “when we turned back up, people go “Oh, so these guys are for real,” because there was still the sentiment out there that we were just there for the show.”
These days he is a motivational speaker – “They call me that sometimes”, he tells me – and admits he is more of a Winter Olympics than a Summer Olympics fan. I ask him why he thinks the story is so inspirational.
“It’s not just that it’s unique, I think it’s so much more relatable to the average person.
“When you have four guys from Jamaica turn up to go bobsledding… Yeah, so we didn’t win, but people can relate to that in their own lives in terms of the big dreams, the big, ridiculous quote-unquote ‘impossible dreams’ that some of them then have the courage to go off and go pursue.
“Then with the movie, it allowed their kids and their kids to see the story, the sense of the story, and be inspired by it.”
Does he still think it’s an important story today, then?
“To be honest, the real story is even more remarkable than the story as depicted in the movie. I think it’s still relevant today because people still have dreams that they are free to go after. If there’s one thing that our story tells, it’s that it’s okay to go after those dreams, even if you fall short.”
Photograph: Rachel Martinez via Wikimedia Commons