Still runnings: Jamaican bobsledders eyeing 2018 Winter Olympics
Theirs was the coolest show at the Olympics. Devon Harris and his Jamaican bobsled teammates were the inspirations for the movie Cool Runnings, Disney’s take on their unlikely journey from a tropical Caribbean island to the 1988 Winter Games. The storyline was accurate even if it was accompanied by fictitious subplots and multiple embellishments. “In the movie, we came from Jamaica, we learned how to ride in a bobsled, we crashed, we made friends and we went home,” says Harris, 49. “That was true. The rest they made up.” But the charming tale didn’t end when the Jamaican team made its Olympic debut in Calgary.
It all seemed like a lark when a fast talking American businessman named George Fitch first began searching the island nation for talented sprinters to form a bobsled team. Fitch’s theory was that fast sprinters made the best bobsled athletes, and Jamaica has always had some of the best sprinters in the world. Harris was one of many who took tests of strength, speed and reaction time during tryouts. Making the team was one thing, but for Harris and his teammates, funding the dream was another matter. When the Jamaicans took their first training runs in Calgary, they slept four to a room at the Panama Motor Inn. They sold t-shirts, and not just by mail order. They sold them on the street and took them into local shops. Most people who bought a shirt, says Harris, did so out of sympathy.
Jamaica’s four-man team crashed and officially failed to finish in Calgary, though their runs improved as the competition progressed. Harris competed again in two-man sleds in 1992 and ’98, finishing 35th and 29th, respectively, before retiring. The Jamaicans’ best showing at the Games was in ’94, when the four-man team placed a very respectable 14th. Hampered by poor funding and inadequate training, Jamaicans were absent from the Olympic bobsled competition in 2006 and ’10. But the team returned to the Games earlier this year, with the two-man team of Winston Watt and Marvin Dixon placing 29th in Sochi.
Today, Harris is a motivational speaker. Riches were not forthcoming after he competed in Calgary, and his post-Olympic life has been bumpy. After the Games, he returned to Kingston, where he served as a commander in the Jamaican army, overseeing 112 men. In September 1988, Hurricane Gilbert struck the island and chaos ensued when power went out. Harris remembers nearly getting shot in head, and says that the bullet missed him by inches.
Four years later, shortly after he returned from Albertville, Harris was leading a drug raid in which his soldiers traded gunfire with armed men. His soldiers killed one of the gunmen, but Harris found himself crawling through garbage as he tried to take cover. “Yesterday I was on TV in front of the entire world; today I could get shot in front of the garbage,” he recalls thinking.
Though Cool Runnings grossed more than $150 million, Harris says that he and his teammates were paid just $10,000 apiece after the film premiered, and that the Jamaican Bobsled Federation received nothing. Harris left the sport and moved to New York City in late 1992. He spent nine months working in a Century 21 retail store across from the World Trade Center, was a cook and a cashier for nine months in a Jamaican restaurant in the Bronx and was a receiving manager for a year and a half at Macy’s. But the bobsled stayed with him.
“It wasn’t five-star hotels and gold medals,” he says of his life in New York, “but it was such a great experience for me and I felt I had something left. I wanted to try one more time to see what I could do.”
In 1997, five years before the Games in Salt Lake City, Harris and many of the team’s members moved to Evanston, Wyo., 50 miles away, where a sponsor gave them free housing and helped them find jobs. Harris delivered pizzas for Domino’s, and points out that he never crashed his delivery vehicle. His teammate Patrick Robinson, made the pizzas and wore a nametag that read “Pizzamon.” (The team's two-man sled, piloted by Winston Watt and Lascellas Brown, finished 29th at the 2002 Games.)
These days, Harris and his wife, Nicole, live in New York. They have five children (but no bobsledders yet). He often returns to Jamaica to participate in philanthropic projects, and he has written two children’s books about his career. Harris also gives three or four motivational speeches a month, including at corporate events for McDonald’s, Charles Schwab, Merrill Lynch, American Express, IBM, Merck and Orbitz. Naturally, his speeches draw his listeners in with passion and optimism. Even Scrooge couldn't help but like Devon Harris. “Look, I have been really fortunate,” he says. “When you do something, anything at all, that puts smiles on people’s faces, you’ve done something right.”
Now Harris wants his countrymen to do more than just make people smile. Through various fundraising efforts in Olympic years, the Jamaican bobsled team has been able to raise enough money to send sledders to the Games. The rest of the time, however, money is scarce. Harris wants to end the team’s cycle of struggling to get by for three years before parlaying the Cool Runnings card into cash in the fourth year. With an eye on training expenses, and with World Cup events moving from North America to Europe in 2015, he has set up a fundraising effort with a modest $10,000 target to cover basic costs. His goal is that the team won’t have to play catch-up in advance of the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyongchang, South Korea.
The island nation that produced Usain Bolt has never lacked for strong sprinters who can push a bobsled. The Jamaican women’s team is up and running for the first time this year, and one of its members is NaTalia Stokes, whose father, Chris, was Harris’ teammate for several years.
“We believe we have the potential to medal some day,” Harris says. “But we can’t do that with two years of training. We’ve been making due, making due. That isn’t the way. It’s too much time away from the program. We want to qualify the maximum numbers of sleds for major competitions. We want to develop skeleton athletes as well. It’s not impossible.”
Those are big dreams. Watt is retired. Dixon, the only holdover from Jamaica’s previous teams is the only one who had seen a sled before this season. Eight other team members have never been out of the country. “We are trying to get by on this potential that hasn’t been tapped yet,” Harris says, referring to his country’s sprinting pedigree. “But then we also have something else. We have ambition and the will to throw ourselves out there. I remember the first time I went down the ice, I was scared to death. By the second time, I thought, ‘Okay, if I die, I die.’ By the third run I was hooked. It’s still in my blood today. You want to see the Olympic spirit, watch the Jamaican bobsled team.”