Sports Gazette

by sports journalism students at St Mary's University, London

“We had never even raced a four-man bobsled before the Olympics”: Devon Harris on Cool Runnings and the incredible story of the Jamaican bobsleigh team

Posted on 8 January 2018 by Nick Friend

“I think people still recall our story because people can see themselves in us,” Devon Harris says pensively, smiling as he recalls his role in one of sport’s most extraordinary feats.

Harris worked as an officer in the Jamaica Defence Force until he thrust himself into a life-changing gamble in late 1987. His name will mean nothing to you.

When we think of Jamaica’s great sportspeople, we list Usain Bolt, Asafa Powell and Courtney Walsh among many others – all famed for their physique, their power, their sheer speed.

Yet, you will have heard of Harris. For his tale has been told and retold ever since the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary captured the imagination of the universe. The Games were the making of Eddie Edwards, the Cheltenham-born ski jumper whose quirky antics brought him worldwide acclaim and, latterly, a film.

It was also the fortnight that gave the world a Jamaican bobsleigh team – the very concept of which, Harris explains, petrified him to the core – even as a young lieutenant fresh from years of intense training at Sandhurst.

“When I first heard that Jamaica wanted to start a bobsleigh team, I thought it was ridiculous,” he confesses. “Nobody was ever going to get me to go on one of those things.”

Thirty years on, however, Harris speaks as a veteran of three Olympic Games and as a founding member of one of the least likely teams in sporting history. He competed in Albertville and Nagano after the sensational Calgary debut that inspired Cool Runnings, the Disney film whose cult success has kept the ultimate underdog story in the public domain ever since.

Bobsleigh, simply, will forever be synonymous with four Jamaican men, plucked from obscurity to fly the flag for their tropical paradise on the icy tracks of Canada.

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Yet, the film – he maintains – hardly scratches the surface of a narrative far beyond the realms of any Hollywood scriptwriter.

“They missed a couple of words out of the title,” he explains. “It should say: ‘very loosely based on a true story’.

“The facts that are actually in the movie are really small. There was a bobsleigh team from Jamaica; we had problems finding funding; we competed in Calgary; we crashed.

“Everything else, they made up or they stretched to make it funny. I actually enjoyed the movie. I thought it told a good human-interest story – the kind of stories that I enjoy watching in movies, really good positive life lessons.

“You can see elements of what we did. There are bits and pieces of what I consider as parts of my personality in there, because they are universal principles. But it’s still an entertaining and mostly fictional film – loosely based on a true story.”

As becomes clear when Harris recounts the five-month period that would change both his life and that of his adopted sport, so much of this incredible episode has gone untouched, with the legend of the 1993 film etched into the memory of every sporting romantic.

“I’d always wanted to represent Jamaica at the Olympics – not in bobsledding, of course,” Harris says as he explains how he stumbled into the sport. He had, in fact, been a promising middle-distance runner with realistic aspirations of a berth in Jamaica’s summer Games squad.

However, two Americans – George Fitch and William Maloney – would change the course of his fledgling athletics career. With both men surprised at Jamaica’s absence from the Winter Olympics given the sprinting prowess of the island’s sportsmen, the pair wanted to set the ultimate challenge – to see if an athlete could successfully adapt to a new sport. Thus, taking inspiration from pushcart derby racing, bobsleighing was pitched to the nation’s summer Olympic squad. With nobody interested, Fitch and Maloney approached the army.

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And although equally sceptical himself, Harris was persuaded into taking part in an open trial by his colonel, Alan Douglas.

“Once I was there, I guess my competitive juices kicked in because I just couldn’t see myself going to the team trials just for the sake of going. I went there trying my hardest to make the team.

“What I knew about bobsleigh was that it was a winter sport, it was fast, and it was dangerous.

“I didn’t know anything else. I could not have described a bobsleigh to you. I just didn’t know anything else about bobsleighing. I had only even become aware of the Winter Olympics four years prior when I was in high school.”

Despite his misgivings, Harris became obsessed. He topped the times, hitting the best numbers and impressing those in charge.

“I was scared to death,” he admits. “My driver had never driven on a track before! I remember resigning myself and saying: ‘If I die, I die. But I’m doing this.’

“But then by run number three, I was still scared to death, but I was hooked on it.”

Less than half a year after first setting eyes on a bobsleigh, Harris would be at the Winter Olympics. It is a whirlwind fairytale; the sheer modern-day implausibility of which amplifies its enduring wonder.

“Luckily for us, back then they didn’t have the stringent qualification process that they do today. It would have been impossible for us nowadays because you need to have two years in the sport to be eligible and we’d had four months.

“But you know, it’s just one of those things. We just threw ourselves into it. We knew it was obvious that there was a lot more that we needed to learn but we just went for it.”

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Were they ready by the time that the Games came around?

“I guess the honest answer would be no,” Harris chuckles.

Yet, although portrayed as a quartet of clowns in the 1993 film, Harris is quick to dispel that perception of his team.

“We never doubted ourselves. I think, without trivialising it and sounding too cute, there’s this thing about being a Jamaican and being called to be in a Jamaican team. There’s just a level of expectation that you’re going to succeed.

“We were doing what I describe as working overtime. When other athletes and teams were relaxing, we were always out on the push-track working. When other teams were in the warm-house relaxing before they went down, we weren’t getting ready to go down.

“We were out on the line, watching the other teams and trying to pick up a tip or learn something somewhere along the line. We understood that there was still a lot of learning that we needed to do. But we were there competing hard nonetheless.”

While Harris and his team were fully aware of their on-track inexperience, nothing – he says – could have prepared the Jamaican foursome for the attention that they’d receive away from the sled.

“We knew we were going to get attention, we were aware that we were a bit different. We were in Austria, for example, and people were seeing four black guys walking down the street and were asking us if we were American basketball players. And we’d say: ‘No, we’re bobsledders from Jamaica’, and they’d just turn around and say: ‘Yeah right!’

“There was definitely some amusement towards us. But it was only when we reached Calgary that this all really blew up. The attention was amazing. I never anticipated anything like it. I don’t know how we could have done, to be honest. How could you?

“In hindsight, you can see why but back then, we were just there trying to train and learn this thing, with the Olympics coming up.

“But I’ve come to realise now that it meant so much more than just four black guys from Jamaica going to the Winter Olympic Games. It was really speaking to all those people across the world who I’ve met over the years who, in their own lives, wanted to go and chase their impossible dream as well and never had the courage to do it. And then in us, they saw that win, lose or draw, you could and you should go for it.”

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Just from listening to Harris, it is impossible to underestimate the obvious impact that his team has had on the Winter Olympics.

“The Winter Olympics were called the ‘white sport’ – for the snow and ice but also for obvious reasons. But when you watch now, you are seeing a breadth of different ethnicities across different sporting disciplines. It’s a really good thing to see.”

Swaziland and Trinidad and Tobago were just two of the less fashionable nations who would make their Winter Olympics debuts in the years after Harris led his team to Calgary as Jamaica’s first ever competitors. Their very status as athletes from warm weather nations made them unwitting celebrities.

“Quite frankly, at times it was a little bit distracting,” he admits. “We were trying to train, we were trying to focus. And it was happening at both ends of the track. We’d be walking up and trying to get to the top of track and one person would stop us and ask for an autograph and a picture and then by the time you’d finished with that person there’d be a crowd.

“And you’d politely do as many as you can and then you extricate yourself and you get down the road and you’d hear one person saying: ‘Excuse me, excuse me! I didn’t get mine back there.’ And you’d oblige and then there’s another crowd and the whole process starts again! It was flattering but distracting!”

Despite the disruption caused by their new-found fame, Dudley Stokes and Michael White competed for Jamaica in the two-man event, finishing 35th. Yet, it was the four-man event that captured the hearts of so many, propelling Harris’s quartet into sporting folklore and forming the basis of Cool Runnings.

“Until the second week of the Olympics we were not entered for the four-man event,” Harris says, laughing at the very impossibility of such a turn of events ever reoccurring.

“We decided there and then to do the four-man event. We had never raced a four-man bobsled before.”

However, with both Freddy Powell and Caswell Allen unavailable, the four-man team was one man short.

“We recruited Chris Stokes, who was not even on the team but was just there because he had come to watch his brother race, and in three days we taught him how to push a sled. That’s all we needed – three days. We didn’t know enough.”

The last-minute call-up for Stokes, who had tried out for the summer Olympic team on the back of a track scholarship at the University of Idaho, merely reinforces the endearing amateurism on which the story has always thrived.

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He had never been in or even seen a bobsled until days before his Olympic bow. Indeed, the team didn’t even own a four-man sled and eventually rented one from the Canadian team, painting over it in Jamaican colours. It was as kamikaze a decision as it was audacious.

“Why did we enter the four-man competition? I call it ‘Jamaicanness’. And it came out in all of us. I use that term and I know that I’m being facetious, but I know that you kind of have to have the brazen impudence to go and pursue results that everybody else thinks are impossible.

“We were there that week and we said: ‘Hey, we should enter the four-man so we can all win a medal.’”

For the first two qualifying heats, their naïve innocence shone through. They were unspectacular, at best. Disaster had nearly struck on the second run, with a shoe problem forcing White to stand up through the first two corners. The media had cynically cast them as ‘Sunday Sledders’, no-hopers only in it for the publicity.

But then in the third and final qualifier, Harris thought his team had cracked it.

“It just all came together at the start. We pushed the seventh fastest start time overall.

“Then poor Dudley, going off so fast and having never seen a track at that speed before, it obviously created some challenges for him.”

The rest, as they say, is history. Footage of the infamous crash that sent the Jamaican sled spiraling out of control has been viewed more than a million times on YouTube.

Harris blames the accident – perhaps paradoxically – on the success of the push-start. At 5.3 seconds, it was two fifths of a second quicker than anything they had previously produced. The result was a faster run than they had ever experienced before and one that they were unable to handle.

The smash is nasty – the sled flipping onto its side before continuing to hurtle down the icy track at 85 miles per hour. That nobody was injured was a miracle in itself. For Harris, however, an army man and a competitive athlete, his health was the least of his concerns.

“How embarrassing. That’s all I could think. My God, this is embarrassing. We’ve just crashed in front of the entire world. I know it looks spectacular and people thought we were dead.

“I was never for one minute worried about my life. I was just embarrassed. We had just crashed on international television at the Olympics.

“I felt that I’d failed – not just myself but an entire nation.”

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One of the film’s most glaring inaccuracies is the aftermath to the shocking incident. The four Jamaicans are seen carrying their sled over the finishing line, as if devastated pallbearers, to rapturous applause.

“We did not walk across the finishing line with the sled as the movie suggested,” Harris says, quashing one of the film’s most iconic moments. Weighing hundreds of pounds, the very idea is wholly improbable.

“We just pushed it across the finish line and as we were walking along the breaking stretch there were people who were just cheering. And I remember one guy just sticking his hand out and I shook it and I was shaking every other hand as I was walking down.”

Yet, even thirty years on, Harris’s voice is tinged with discomfort as he recalls the sympathy he received immediately afterwards.

“Everybody who enters a race wants to win,” he explains with a sigh. “As delusional as it might sound, you’re there and you want to compete hard and you want to try to win.

“In pure sporting terms, it was a failure,” he says frankly. It is a viewpoint that contradicts the heroism that the story has adopted in recent years. Equally, it highlights Harris’s commitment to succeeding in the sport – the bobsleigh world was shocked when the Jamaican team arrived at world events the following year.

Three decades on, Harris can look at the importance of his achievements through a wider spectrum.

“Sometimes success is not always about the final score. And so, if you take the entire experience in its full context then it was a tremendous success. It still amazes people that we went on a bobsleigh track for the first time in October 1987 and then ended up at the Olympic Games four months later.

“If you look at the whole experience in its totality, from not knowing what a bobsled was to then pushing the seventh fastest start time at the Games in February 1988, that’s pretty spectacular.”

And for Harris – in his own mind a ‘failure’ – it was the return home to Kingston, where he was greeted with nationwide adulation, that opened his eyes to what his team had accomplished.

“It was surprising. We were thinking that people were going to be pissed that we’d crashed. But wow, they were all so proud and so supportive. It was amazing.

“I don’t think in the history of Jamaican sport, you’re going to find another Jamaican team that failed – as we did – and were still really embraced.”

However, the result – compounded by the attention surrounding Eddie the Eagle in the ski jumping competition – led to new restrictions being put in place by the International Olympic Committee. The purpose of the legislation was designed to eliminate the possibility of ‘novelty acts’ competing in the future.

That Jamaica qualified for the Games in Albertville four years later served to highlight the impact of the 1988 team. In 1994, when Harris did not compete, the Jamaican sled finished fourteenth – ahead of the United States and Russia. The hope now is that, having competed at six Olympic Games, the ‘novelty act’ scepticism may be replaced with genuine medal hopes.

For Harris, however, the IOC restriction has still had a major impact.

“The way I truthfully look at it is that these rules mean that there will never be another story like ours. It leaves us in a really unique place.

“I personally think that any rule that seeks to limit participators in the name of ‘high calibre performance’ really goes against the grain of the ideals of the Olympic spirit, motto and purpose.

“If you had asked me thirty years ago about the popularity of the story, I would never have guessed this. But I do understand it. The story transcends sport.

“People couldn’t appreciate the Germans and the Swiss and the Americans and the Canadians and so on – the top teams. You almost expect that they are going to perform in the way that they do and that they’re going to be at the top of the ladder.

“But then, what people saw in us was the fact that, through conventional wisdom, we had no reason to be there. We did not belong. But we were there nonetheless. And then these people could look at their own lives and realise that there were so many things that they’d wanted to do but hadn’t been able to or hadn’t believed that they were able to. They had listened to others telling them that they didn’t belong and they had believed them. We became an inspiration to those people.”

This sense of belonging is why Harris’s everlasting memories of the Calgary Games are not what one might imagine. The thrill of representing his country and whizzing down the ice is memorable. But it is not what defined his Olympic experience.

“The opening ceremony and the lighting of the flame really symbolised this oneness that the Olympics are all about. It was probably my favourite moment and it links to my worst and least favourite moment. The second that the flame was extinguished – the sound that it made just left a sinking feeling. It just felt like utopia had suddenly ended.

“The other thing that stands out in my mind was being in the village. We were still at the height of the Cold War and everything behind the Iron Curtain was deemed to be evil. And here I was in the game arcade, playing Pacman and right next to me was a guy from Poland or Czechoslovakia who was supposed to be evil. And I realised in that moment that we shared the same aspirations and suffered from the same human frailties and that the only real difference between us was ideology.”

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These days, alongside his continued emotional investment in the Jamaican Bobsleigh Federation, Harris works as a motivational speaker. He has an astonishing story to tell. 31 years ago, he was a young Sandhurst graduate and aspiring 800m runner. One year later, he was the face of sport’s least believable chain of events.

“The truth actually is more amazing than the film,” he laughs as our chat comes to a close.

“If I’m telling you that we could perform an event that we weren’t even entered in and for which we didn’t even have a sled, and that we decided to enter and we take a guy who had never seen a sled before and we give him three days training before pushing the seventh fastest start time in the entire field, that’s pretty remarkable! Where else in the world could that happen?”

His question is rhetorical. But the answer is so powerful. It could never happen anywhere else. Even Eddie Edwards had grown up with a Winter Olympic dream. Harris had never heard of the sport until he found himself propelling down a makeshift track in a country that – away from its highest mountains – has never seen snow. What the Jamaican bobsleigh team achieved is unmatched in history. It will forever be unparalleled.

But having sacrificed a military dream for national service of an entirely different kind, does Harris regret any of it?

“There are no regrets. I often joke that Jamaica has tons of summer Olympians but it’s really cool to be a Jamaican winter Olympian. It worked out beautifully. I’d do it again in a heartbeat.”