Fire on Ice (30th Anniversary Edition)

Let’s start with Clive Lloyd.

Big C, The Guyanan leader, who in 1976 took his team of Caribbean cricketers to a scorching England. Tony Greig wanted to “make them grovel,” put them in their place, expecting to be met with the flamboyant, futile “Calypso cricket” caricature of the Windies team. Instead came Lloyd, Viv Richards, Michael Holding, Andy Roberts, Gordon Greenidge, a drilled athleticism and an anti-colonial fire. They dominated the world.

Let’s now talk about Bob Marley, Peter Tosh and Jimmy Cliff. The reggae stars who strummed and wailed the soundtrack of ’76. Marley and Richards ran into each other in London that year, and were in awe of one another, united by their mission to show the planet the fire and the passion and the brilliance of the Caribbean.

There are countless others, in music, sport and elsewhere, who have taken Caribbean culture across the globe and forced people to stop, take note – take it seriously – and be moved. Grace Jones, Arthur Lewis, Usain Bolt, Merlene Ottey, Brian Lara, Stafanie Taylor.

Let’s now talk about the Jamaican Bobsled team. Dudley Stokes, Devon Harris, Chris Stokes, Michael White. They are part of this. This is their story. It is not “the real Cool Runnings,” because the story is so much bigger than that, and because the film itself plays a big role in this tale.

This is Fire on Ice.

The Stakes

We all know this story. At least we think we do – of the Winter Olympians who’d never even been on ice before. The bobsled team had more to avoid the embarrassment and subsequent misery risked by the Olympic underdog – the fate suffered by that other Calgary hero, Eddie the Eagle, who was banned from competing again after the Games. The Jamaicans, however, had also to fight the aged, libellous “Calypso” portrayal of Caribbean people as fun-loving and casual, incapable of brilliance and with a culture borrowed from elsewhere.

This attitude was centuries old. It was rooted in the white masters who saw their slaves as docile, in the blackfaced Uncle Toms of the American theatres past, in Songs of the South, and in the academic dismissal of Caribbean culture as inauthentic, impure. Marley and Lloyd fought constantly against the tame (unthreatening) Caribbean marketed to white tourists and consumers, reminding the world that the islands were full of rebels, innovators and freedom fighters – no sideshow. So too did this task fall to the bobsledders, vulnerable to ridicule just for daring to slide.

The stakes were high. It was not the taking part that mattered, it was the competing.

Calgary 

The Jamaican Bobsleigh Federation was founded by two US businessmen in Jamaica, George Fitch and William Maloney. They saw the talent of the Jamaican sprinters and the skill of the drivers in the pushcart derby, and envisaged the whole thing on ice. They got a team together. Helicopter pilot Dudley Stokes was to drive the sled, with Michael White as brakeman. Devon Harris and Chris Stokes made up the four-man, with electrician Frederick Powell in reserve.

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Unlike in Cool Runnings, the team were able to practice on ice before the Games, training at Lake Placid. However, they arrived in Canada with dreadful equipment, no money, and no confidence – three very important things in bobsleigh.

The team got fundraising quickly, selling t-shirts, merch, and even an official song. Hobbin’ and a Bobbin’, sung by Powell, and hit Canada hard. The track skidded hard into the herby stereotypes of Jamaica, subversive as hell, selling the lie to fund the fire. But it was a risky ploy, as it gave their onlookers too much credit.

The team started in the two-man, with Stokes and White taking to the track under the strict gaze of media mockery. The (more-sympathetic) LA Times aptly summed up the attitude.

“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.”

The attention, the reggae and the flamboyant PR overlooked the achievements of reaching Calgary and competing. Fastforward to day 1 of the four-man, 27th February 1988, and Stokes, White, Harris and Chris Stokes slid down the track without a hitch, remaining focused amidst the media storm.

Cool Runnings gave the team a nemesis – the nasty East Germans (communist, formerly-Nazi and no longer existing – the perfect Hollywood bad guys). However, the other athletes supported the team, knowing as they did the difficulties and dangers of bobsleigh. Jamaica’s biggest threat came from the Fédération International de Bobsleigh et de Tabogganing (FITB), who feared the team would embarrass the sport.

And it seemed that the FITB would get their wish, after Dudley Stokes lost control and crashed the sled on day 2. Forget the Hollywood finale for a second – the applause was sporadic, the sled was carried off by some anonymous maintenance staff, and the media consumed their perfect Calypso Conclusion to their side show.

Lillehammer

That was that, then, it seemed. The team, broke, were not done yet. Nor was Fitch, who continued working with them for four more years.

“The team members saw themselves as athletes; not as showmen”

They continued to work hard, and proved to fundraisers and the Jamaican Bobsleigh Federation that they were worth supporting to Albertville 1992 and beyond. As Lillehammer 1994 approached, they were a force to be reckoned with.

The year before, Cool Runnings came out – the film that shaped how most of us remember Calgary. Sure, it’s full of Calypso imagery – sprinters running on a dirt track in the National Championships (remember this is Jamaica, world leaders in track and field), and all the fish-out-of-water antics.

That, however, is not the point of the film, and nor is it why it is significant. Cool Runnings is a story of four highly-trained sprinters who learn how to slide the bobsleigh, and slide it well, by “feelin’ the rhythm” of Jamaica, by being true to themselves. And they proved everybody wrong.

Nor does it matter that the four-man crashed due to pilot error (and not mechanical failure as in the film), and it doesn’t matter that they were not on world record pace when it happened. What mattered is that it changed completely how Calgary was remembered – the team was no longer seen as a freak show, an anomaly, like Eddie the Eagle (who had to wait another 20 years for his film), but they were that team from the tropics that could conquer the ice with the fire in their bellies and the skill in their bones.

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Oh, and in Lillehammer they were the equal of anyone. As Bob Marley sits on nearly every playlist in the West, and as modern cricket mourns the loss of the uncompromising brilliance of Lloyd and Richards’ dominators, so too is Jamaican bobsleigh known for pioneering, and overachievement.

In Lillehammer they came 14th – the 14th best sled in the world, and they beat the USA.

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

21st Century Pioneers

The Jamaican bobsleigh team, had persevered, survived, and flourished. In Salt Lake City, 2002, Winston Watt and Lascelles Brown broke the start record for the two-man bob.

Sadly, it took twelve years for the Jamaican team to return to the ice – now crowdfunded by everybody who feels the Winter Games needs the Jamaican bobsleigh team. Yes, the media once again went wild with Calypso imagery, and were not without disparaging voices. A BBC commentator at Sochi 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 crashed).

Who cares, they qualified by right to Sochi, slid, and competed in the two man, piloted once more by Winston Watt. His old partner in crime, Lascelles Brown, is now a two-time medallist, having taken Canadian citizenship in 2005.

Antonette Gorman and Captain Judith Blackwood then took the baton and started a women’s team. Portia Morgan and Jennifer Cole went further and took a sled to the World Cup Series, and in 2018, Jazmine Fenlator-Victorian arrived to Pyeongchang to drive the sled in the two-woman bob, backed by brakewoman Carrie Russell.

The first Jamaican women’s sled at the Games was dogged by familiar problems of funding and equipment. Their coach, Sandra Kiriasis, quit a week before the competition started, and took her sled with her! The women were now in Korea without equipment, before beer company Red Stipe stepped in and bought it off Kiriasis for the team to use. “Cool Runnings II” everybody shouted. But Red Stripe know something (and aim to profit heavily off it) – the world needs the Jamaican bobsleigh team.

Why?

It’s about representation. The Jamaican bobsleigh team is about, in the words of Fenlator-Victorian, “breaking barriers.”

“It’s important to me that little girls and boys see someone that looks like them – talks like them, has the same culture as them, has crazy curly hair and wears it natural, has brown skin – included in different things in this world.”

They finished 19th. Sliding alongside them were the Nigerian team – the first African bobsled team. On the top of the roster stood American Vonetta Flowers, the first black gold medallist at the Winter Olympics, sliding down the hill with Jill Bakken.

This is the legacy of the Calgary sliders, and all those who have followed them over the last thirty years. The Jamaican Bobsleigh Team are audacious representatives of black ability in unfamiliar territory, and undoubtedly part of the lineage of Marley and Lloyd, and beyond to Toussaint and Dessalines. People who get the world to stop, look up, and take the Caribbean very seriously. They are trailblazers – they are fire on ice – and in 2018, that fire is spreading.

This is an updated post of my 2014 post Fire on Ice: The Jamaican Bobsleigh Team and the Art of Being Taken Seriously

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