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Throwback: The improbable Olympic bobsleigh legacy and the birth of Cool Runnings

CALGARY - FEBRUARY 25:  The Jamaican four man bobsleigh team in action at the 1988 Calgary Winter Olympic Games held on February 25, 1988 in Calgary, Canada. (Photo by David Yarrow/Getty Images)

February 27-28, 1988 (over two days of competition)

The story of the Jamaican bobsleigh team was turned into a Hollywood movie, although it wasn’t entirely in keeping with the facts of a remarkable story.

One of the most unlikely Olympic Winter Games teams – a two-man bobsleigh line-up from the Caribbean – originated with George Fitch, then a diplomat at the US Embassy in the Jamaican capital Kingston.

Fitch got into conversation with Ken Barnes, the father of then Liverpool and England footballer John Barnes, and talked about Jamaica at the Winter Games.

It led to a push-cart derby the next day and Fitch believed that, with the pace of Jamaicans, a bobsleigh team was not unthinkable. He initially failed to get track and field athletes to make the transition so instead held open auditions.

In stepped 800 metre runner Devon Harris, who had an Olympic dream which failed to reach fruition at the Summer Games.

Then a member of the Jamaican Defence Force, the advert he saw called for prospective competitors to “undergo rigorous and dangerous training” to be part of the Jamaican team. He initially laughed off the idea but was persuaded and clocked the fastest times in the try-outs.

Fitch spent £56,000 of his own money to fund the team to Calgary, and Harris travelled to Canada with team-mates Dudley Stokes, Michael White, Freddie Powell and Caswell Allen.

Coached in the bob by Howard Siler, a former World Championships medallist in the sport turned coach, amazingly, Fitch raised £15,000 in T-shirts made by his wife to buy a four-man sled from the Canadian team.

Word spread and some 40,000 people came to see their third heat in which they got off to a flier before crashing dramatically. But they were all unscathed and got up to wave at the spectators, further adding to their Olympic folklore. They eventually pushed their sled to the finish.


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