Fire on Ice: The Jamaican Bobsleigh Team and the Art of Being Taken Seriously

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When Viv Richards met Bob Marley in London in 1976 (as documented by the great film Fire in Babylon), they found themselves in awe of one another.

I really love what you’re doing out there-No I really love what you’re doing.

What they were actually doing was far more than representing West Indian culture in the outside world, in England, or anywhere else, but they were forcing the outside world to take them, and the Caribbean as a whole, very seriously.

When the Jamaican bobsleigh team arrived in Calgary, 1988, they faced a similar challenge. We all know the story; the Winter Olympic team who had never been on the ice, we’ve all seen Cool Runnings. Not only did they need to do well to avoid the subsequent misery suffered by that other great Calgary hero, Eddie the Eagle, who was cruelly deemed too embarrassing to compete again, but against the constant portrayal of Caribbeans as fun-loving, casual folk with a culture borrowed from elsewhere.

The stakes were high.

It’s hard to say how far back this attitude hails from; but you can find it in the alleged docility of slaves in the eyes of their white masters. You can find it in the blackfaced Uncle Toms of the 19th Century USA and in the Songs of the South eighty years on. You can find it in the near-complete disinterest of foreign social scientists (with a few notable exceptions) in seriously studying Caribbean culture as it was rejected as a mongrelised, inauthentic, impure thing.

This attitude was alive and well in the great Caribbean exports of music and sport in the latter 20th Century. Against the fire and protest of Bob Marley and the Wailers, and their forerunners Jimmy Cliff and Desmond Dekker, there was a mountain of Pop Reggae, with backing-track sound system, designed to sell a tamed Caribbean to White America and Europe.

Clive Lloyd’s West Indies came together after twenty years of repetitive defeats. The team had previously thrilled foreign crowds with flamboyant, creative play, but always fell short in the end. They were paraded, mobbed, and cheered by Australian fans after the “Calypso summer” of 1960-61. But Calypso Cricket had an expiry date, as Lloyd’s team forced a drilled athleticism and an anti-colonial fire on their opponents, and started winning. Started dominating. Humiliating their opponents. They were hated for it abroad, and England captain (and White South African) Tony Greig symbolized the disparaging attitude perfectly.

“If they’re down, they grovel, and I intend, with the help of Clossy and a few others, to make them grovel”

(How he failed)

The Jamaican Bobsleigh Federation founded by two American businessmen in Jamaica, George Fitch and William Maloney, saw the talent in the Jamaican sprinters, and the skill in the local pushcart derby, and imagined the whole thing on ice. Unlike the film, they were able to train on the ice at Lake Placid, but had dreadful equipment, and reached Calgary without confidence and without the means to compete.

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Fundraising started quickly, and t-shirts, merchandise, and the official song Hobbin’ and a Bobbin’ , sung by team member and electrician Frederick Powell, hit Canada hard. Two of the squad, driver and helicopter pilot Dudley Stokes (and eventual veteran of four Winter Olympics), and his brakeman Michael White slid the two-man under the strict attention of media mockery. The overarching feeling was aptly summed up by the more-sympathetic LA Times;

“You’ve got to be kidding me. Jamaicans do not belong on bobsleds, they belong on the beach. At least that’s the common perception”

For all the attention, for all the reggae and the colour of the PR, the achievement of reaching Calgary by right was overlooked. The first day of the four-man sled competition went off without a hitch, but Stokes and White, joined by Devon Harris and Chris Stokes, remained focused despite the disparaging media hysteria.

It was not the nasty East Germans of Cool Runnings (a communist, formerly-Nazi, non-existent country that made the perfect Hollywood nemesis) that were the enemies of the team; the other athletes were highly supportive of the team, as they knew the difficulties and dangers of the sled. It was the Fédération International de Bobsleigh et de Tabogganing (FITB), who feared that the Jamaicans would embarrass the sport. As Dudley Stokes lost control of the sled and Jamaica crashed out, the applause was sporadic, the sled was carried off by some anonymous maintenance staff, and the media had the perfect Calypso Conclusion to their sideshow.

Dudley Stokes, Freddie Powell, Devon Harris, Michael White, PC. Harris

The money had dried up, but George Fitch stuck with them until 1992. Yet the team were not done. As the official website of the team writes in their detailed history of the team,

“Team members saw themselves as athletes; not as showmen”

They worked hard and proved to fundraisers and the Jamaican Bobsleigh Federation they were worth supporting. They earned their way to the 1992 Games, and by the 1994 games in Lillehammer, they were a force to be reckoned with.

The year before, Cool Runnings was released; the film that has shaped how we remember Calgary. Sure there is a lot of Calypso imagery; the sprinters running on a dirt track in the National Championships and all the fish-out-of-water antics, but that is not the point of the film, and nor is it why it is significant. It is the way it tells the story of four highly-tuned sprinters who learned to slide the bobsleigh, and slide it well, by “feelin’ the rhythm” of Jamaica, by being true to themselves. And they proved everybody wrong.

Of course, it is likely that the Jamaican four-man crashed due to pilot error (it was not mechanical failure as in the film), and were certainly not on world record pace, but that doesn’t matter. It changed foreign views of the event; the team were no longer seen as a freak show, an anomaly, like the unfortunate Eddie the Eagle (who worked ridiculously hard to get to Calgary), but as the team from the tropics that could conquer the ice with the fire in their bellies and their athletic ability.

And in Lillehammer they were equals. As Bob Marley’s Legend now sits on every CD rack in the West, as modern cricket mourns not the decline of Calypso Cricket, but the uncompromising brilliance of Malcolm Marshall, Michael Holding, and Viv Richards, so Jamaican bobsleigh is known for overachievement. In Lillehammer, they ended the Olympics in 14th place – the 14th best bobsled team in the world, and better than America.

“If we were the jokers, and we had beaten America, what was America?”

The bobsleigh team had persevered, survived, and forced others to take them seriously. In Salt Lake City, 2002, Winston Watt and Lascelles Brown broke the start record for the two-man bob. Sadly, it took until two weeks ago at Sochi for Jamaica (and Watt, in his forties) to return to the Olympic scene. And the media went wild with Cool Runnings imagery. There were a few disparaging voices as usual; a BBC commentator spectacularly missed the point, moodily noting that “they weren’t even the highest placed Caribbean team in Calgary” – that was in the two man, beaten by the Netherlands Antilles (in the four they DNF’d).

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That doesn’t matter. They qualified by right to Sochi, and got from top to bottom quickly and unscathed, and slid on a history built not only on Cool Runnings but on the achievements of Lillehammer and Salt Lake City, on Winston Watt, who kept the standard raised with four Olympic appearances, and on Lascelles Brown, who took Canadian citizenship in 2005 (for his wife) and won Olympic silver in Turin, and bronze in Vancouver. A word too, for Lieutenant Antonette Gorman, and Captain Judith Blackwood, Jamaica’s first female sliders, and Portia Morgan and Jennifer Cole, who competed in the World Cup series for Jamaica.

It is the achievements of those athletes, in the face of all those who mocked them, doubted them, that the bobsleigh became, alongside reggae and cricket, an unlikely weapon in the continuing fight for the Caribbean to be viewed seriously by the outside world.

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One thought on “Fire on Ice: The Jamaican Bobsleigh Team and the Art of Being Taken Seriously

  1. Pingback: “Her Name Hail Far and Wide:” Fiji at the Olympic Games, 1956-2016 – Days of Dial-Up

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