The Real 'Cool Runnings': 1988 Jamaican Bobsledder Says True Story Was 'Even More Remarkable'
Devon Harris, an original member of the team and chairman of the Jamaican Bobsled Federation, says the movie’s plot is a far cry from what actually happened.
Thirty years ago, the Jamaican bobsled team competed for the first time in the Winter Olympics.
Theirs is the ultimate underdog story: A group of guys with Olympic aspirations in a country known for its beaches but not snow. It’s no wonder that Hollywood jumped at the chance to tell their story in the 1993 Disney film, Cool Runnings.
But Devon Harris, an original member of the team and chairman of the Jamaican Bobsled Federation, says the movie’s plot is a far cry from what actually happened.
“The true story is even more remarkable,” Harris told InsideEdition.com.
Cool Runnings grossed nearly $69 million at the box office when it was released in October 1993 and the film continues to charm audiences.
In the film, three sprinters — all fictional characters — fail to qualify for the 1988 Summer Olympics. After pleading with the head of the Jamaican Olympic Association to find another way to qualify, protagonist Derice Bannock (Leon) discovers that a former U.S. bobsledder, Irv Blitzer (John Candy), is living in the island nation. Bannock and his friend, a local pushcart driver called Sanka Coffie (Doug E. Doug), find the American alcoholic gambler in a bar in Kingston and try to coax him into coaching the team.
“It is very loosely based [on us],” Harris told InsideEdition.com. “The true story is too bizarre that people wouldn’t believe it.”
The names of all of the characters, including Blitzer, are made up.
The real version goes like this: In 1987, two American businessmen, George Fitch and William Maloney, were living in Jamaica and were inspired by a local pushcart derby to form the country’s first bobsled team.
With the support of the Jamaica Olympic Association, the Americans first set their sights on recruiting track stars who didn’t qualify for the Olympics. They also spoke to the Jamaica Defense Force and got the help of Col. Ken Barnes to recruit players.
Among those recruits was Harris, who was 22 at the time and serving in the Jamaican Army. He was a middle-distance runner who tried out for the 1984 Summer Olympics, but failed to qualify.
“I thought it was ridiculous,” he recalled to InsideEdition.com. “People thought it was ridiculous. I said, ‘No one could ever get me on one of those.’”
But Barnes pushed him to try out for the team.
"Once [Barnes] told me to go, in a way I wanted to be on the team," he said. “If I am going, I am not going to make up a number; I am going to make the team. I always dreamed of being a summer Olympian for track but then my thinking shifted. I saw how amazing the opportunity was."
Unlike the movie, the athletes didn’t have to sell kisses or hock their vehicles. In reality, the team was funded by Fitch and the Jamaican Tourism Board. The original recruits were not former track stars but three members of the Army — Capt. Dudley Stokes, Lt. Devon Harris and Pvt. Michael White — and a civilian, Samuel Clayton.
"We know what great athletes there are in Jamaica and know that [athleticism] could be applied to any sport," Fitch told Inside Edition in 1993. "This was an idea that grabbed me."
The film shows the men crashing into fields and farms as they practice. In reality, the four players trained for three hours a day next to a soccer field in the Army barracks using a makeshift sled. Practices were grueling but, without the use of snow, the squad didn’t know how good they could be. Still, they relished in the opportunity.
“I am from the hood and a year after high school, I am in the Army,” Harris said. “Then I became a bobsledder, something no one in my country has done.”
For Harris, the bobsled, while it was foreign to him, was still a ticket to broaden his horizons.
“Growing up in my neighborhood, there was not much opportunity,” he said. “There was more despair than hope. Wanting to be an Army officer was a dream and then I applied and the dream became a reality... What happened if I didn’t? It is hard to get out of the ghetto."
A month after being assembled, the team traveled to Lake Placid, N.Y., to train on the tracks. It was no more flat surfaces, concrete or dirt.
The Cool Runnings characters had never felt the cold before, so they prepare themselves by climbing inside freezers. Harris and his teammates, however, had experienced the cold during their time in the Army. For Harris, it took being stationed in the United Kingdom in 1985, where the weather "punched me in the face and my heart."
He added, "Life experiences changes things — now I love the cold!"
The team later trained in Calgary and Austria, then back to Lake Placid. Along the way, they picked up two more players – Frederick Powell and Caswell Allen.
Powell became a de-facto publicist for the team by selling shirts and singing their song, “Hobin' and a Bobin'.”
When they returned to Calgary in February 1988, they were welcomed warmly by their peers, unlike in the film.
"In the film they stretched the truth on racial discrimination," he said. "Athletes generally don’t treat each other that way."
Just a week before the Olympics, Allen injured his hand and had to be replaced. Stokes’ brother, Chris, who was at the Games but had never been on a bobsled, was a last-minute replacement.
"We're like 'Chris, you're a sprinter, right? Come on!' So three days we taught him everything we knew. And then at the end of the week we pushed the seventh fastest time," Harris said.
The Jamaican bobsled team also competed in the two-man sled race, which was not depicted in the film. They also didn’t use a rickety sled left over by the Americans like the Cool Runnings cast did. In fact, the Jamaicans rented an older sled from Canada and painted their colors on it just days before the race.
As the four men hit the ice in their sleds, the eyes of the world were fixed on them. Some watched for curiosity, others for the great underdog story.
But on the team’s third heat, disaster struck.
Driver Dudley Stokes, who had suffered a shoulder injury during training, lost control of the sled on a turn, and the team crashed, forcing the sled on its side. Cool Runnings used footage from the actual crash in the film.
“When you're in a crash, there is not much you can do, just have to go for the ride, and it's an interesting experience because you just see flashes of white that's going by and you hear the sled scraping on the ice, and it's a horrible sound in your ear, and then you smell the burning of fiberglass," Harris said. "A sled is very small. The four of you [in] very confined space and so if you panic, you make it worse, so you just lay there and you just come to an end."
Aside from bruised egos, no one was seriously injured in the crash.
“The lowest part for us was the crash in Calgary, but it fueled our desire to come back,” Harris said. “The crash made sure we came back.”
The team pushed the sled over the finish line as people waved and cheered, just like the film.
Despite the way Cool Runnings bends the truth, Harris says he loves the film.
“I really enjoyed it,” he said. "It is a human interest story with a powerful lesson."
While the Hollywood version does not reflect reality, Harris says it captured “the essence and spirit of the team.”
“All of us enjoy the movie,” he added. “All of us love it.”
Harris says he was originally anxious about how the real-life characters would be depicted, but was pleased when he saw the film.
“Relief was my first reaction because there was concern about stereotypes of Jamaica, like smoking weed, and none of my team has ever smoked weed,” he said.
Following the 1988 Olympics, Harris returned to the Army.
“I took the Olympic uniform off and put my Army uniform back on,” he said.
When the time came, he toured with the Jamaican bobsled team to exhibit its positive impact.
For the 1992 Olympics in Albertville, France, Harris became the captain of his team. He also captained the 1998 team in Nagano, Japan, before retiring from Olympic competition. He became the secretary general of the Jamaican Bobsled Federation as well as a motivational speaker, philanthropist and author.
“I feel a responsibility to inspire,” he said. “All of us have that responsibility to do what we can to help the next person."
He runs the Keep On Pushing Foundation to help feed children in impoverished areas of Jamaica.
“I feel a responsibility to help these kids because I am one of them," he said. "All of us can do something in their lives."
As secretary general, Harris said his biggest hurdle has been getting funding for the current teams. For the 2014 Games in Sochi, the team solicited online donations to pay for expenses.
“The funding is the biggest challenge,” he said. “We can figure out a way to qualify, but we need funding to train and then we can be truly competitive. We are always so far behind the curve, but I believe we can win an Olympic medal."
The Jamaican men’s bobsled team failed to qualify for the 2018 Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea. However, Jamaica sent a women's bobsled team, a first for the country.
"It is a long time coming," he said. “It will be a dream come true to see a women’s team and a men’s team compete.”
If you would like to sponsor or donate to the Jamaican Bobsled Federation, click here.
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