Look-back : When four Jamaicans ran cool at the Winter Olympics

Winter Olympics have often been dominated by Norway, United States and Canada. But, something else happened in 1988.

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Winter Olympics is often overlooked for its summer counterpart by the global audience. From number of athletes to viewership, the Winter Olympics have always been far behind due to lesser participating nations and varieties of sports.

Since its inception in 1924, the Winter edition of the greatest show on Earth has been largely dominated by the Europeans and the North Americans with occasional challenges from North East Asian countries and the two big Oceanian nations (in a way the countries experiencing snow in winter).

Over the years, Norway has led the way with the most number of gold medals in the Winter games followed by the USA and Germany. Occasionally there have been teams from Middle East and South Asia as well as South America and North Africa, representing their nations in the Winter Olympics. These countries although, not typically ones those known for freezing winters, experiences occasional snow over the years (the main constraint for the Winter Games) in certain parts.

However,in 1988 Games in Calgary, Canada, the world was flabbergasted to see a team from Jamaica taking part in the Bobsleigh event. Previously there had been individual representation from tropical countries in the winter Olympics by Enroll Fraser of the British Virgin Islands and Arturo Kinch of Costa Rica in 1980, Lamine Gueye of Senegal and George Tucker of Puerto Rico in 1984. This was the first time a tropical nation that never experienced any form of snow in any time of the year, was represented in a team event.

Prior to the 1988 Winter Olympic games, Jamaican businessmen George B. Fitch and William Maloney proposed the idea of a Jamaican bobsleigh team after seeing a local pushcart derby. The Jamaican Federation obliged and advertised to volunteer for the same. But ultimately due to internal problems volunteers were asked from the Jamaican Defense Force, out of which 4 were selected. Dudley Stokes, Devon Harris and Michael White were the first three chosen candidates with team mate Casewell Allen joining later. With funding from the Jamaican Tourist Board and the two businessmen, the four men trained under coach Sepp Haidacher in Canada and Australia. The Jamaican Olympic Association got the permission from the Fédération International de Bobsleigh et de Tobogganing to compete in both two-man and four-man events.

Once in Calgary, Casewell Allen injured himself while the team was conducting test runs to get accustomed to the conditions. Dudley’s brother Chris Stokes was added to the four man team in spite of never having ridden a bobsleigh in his life before.

Dudley Stokes and Michael White became Jamaica’s first ever winter athletes when they competed in the Two-Man event finishing 30th out of 41 teams after four runs. They finished ahead of both the teams from Portugal and Mexico, teams from New Zealand, Bulgaria, Italy and Australia.

In the Four-Man event, the first run ended poorly due to the push-bar in the sleigh breaking when Dudley Stokes jumped into the bobsleigh. It resulted in the team coming in third from last in 24th place. On their second attempt, the team ranked second to last, due in part to White struggling to crouch down properly in his seat, remaining almost upright through the first corner.

The events of the third run was what made them best known. Stokes had injured his shoulder prior to the race, but still decided to continue. The team set the seventh-fastest start for all competitors, but at the turn called the “Kreisel“, Stokes lost control of the bobsleigh and it careened into the wall of the track, flipping over on top of the four athletes.

The four team members traveled quite a bit of distance in that manner before climbing out and pushing the bobsleigh to the end of the track and carrying it off. The team did not compete in the fourth run, and subsequently were listed as not finishing the event, being ranked last.

The story of the Jamaican bobsleigh team at the 1988 Winter Olympics was turned into the 1993 movie Cool Runnings, which were later claimed to be loosely based on true events.
All of the team members returned for the 1992 Winter Olympics, however Harris only competed in the two-man event, with his place in the four-man team taken by newcomer Ricky McIntoshHarris and the Stokes brothers would continue to compete at the Winter Games in the bobsleigh events until the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano. 

In spite of never tasting success or metal in the winter Olympics, these four men broke the stereotypes and were instrumental in inspiring generations of men and women from the tropical countries to participate in the following games, while creating a legacy that will never be forgotten.

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