Captain of Jamaican bobsleigh team on what Cool Runnings got right (and wrong)
'It was funny, but I didn't see myself in it'
The captain of the Jamaican bobsleigh team depicted in Cool Runnings says he hated the film when it was first released as it damaged the team's legacy at a time when they were fighting to restore credibility after crashing out of the 1988 Games.
The fate of the beloved Jamaican team made famous by the 1993 cult classic was hurled back into the spotlight on Tuesday after they qualified for next month's Beijing Winter Olympics - the first time in 24 years the country's four-man team will participate - and the first time it has qualified for three different bobsleigh events.
For Dudley 'Tal' Stokes, Cool Runnings came at a bad time and he "didn't like it". Jamaica had just enjoyed success at the 1994 Winter Olympics finishing ahead of the USA, Russia, and France, and "were becoming a decent team", but much of that feat was lost amid the laughter surrounding the movie.
The team, Stokes recalls, was on a "journey" that "took us from comedians to competitors", but the movie had frozen them in time as a comedy act undoing much of the graft they had put in.
In 1988, the five-man Jamaican team was destined to fail. They had limited experience, and even less in the way of equipment - having to borrow kit from other nations - and in the final run, their efforts came to an abrupt end when they crashed their sled.
Forced to walk back, the team did not even officially complete the race.
In the two-man event, Stokes paired with Michael White as Jamaica finished 30th out of 41 nations.
In Lillehammer, Norway - site of the 1994 Winter Olympics - pride in the team was somewhat restored when they finished 14th.
But Cool Runnings stole that glory at the box office with a story that mashed pieces of information together for the sake of slapstick, rather than accurately portraying the five team members.
"Leon, the lead character, was a mish-mash of me and my brother. It was funny, but I didn't see myself in it," Stokes said, recalling how he also had to explain to his children that improving the team's fortunes did not depend on kissing a lucky egg, as depicted in the movie.
"Improving at anything is about what happens between your ears, in your mind, and borrowing elements from those who have been successful," Stokes told JOE.
The film omitted "the good feelings" and "the human stories" behind the team's rise, too, such as the fact Stokes was kicked into the sport by a man familiar to many British football fans - Colonel Ken Barnes. His son John played for Watford, Liverpool, and England and is regarded as one of the greatest players in The Reds' history.
"I was serving in the Jamaican Army, flying helicopters in the air force. Two Americans in Jamaica came up with the idea [of a Jamaican bobsleigh team], but they were having trouble finding athletes," Stokes recalled.
They sought the help of Ken Barnes - then head of sport within the Jamaican Army.
"You may have heard of his son John," Stokes joked.
Army bosses believed Stokes' ability to fly a helicopter equipped him with the skills needed to drive a bobsleigh. Well, they're both fast and mistakes can be fatal: Bobsleigh teams reach breakneck speeds of up to 150km/h down Labyrinth-like courses.
"This wasn't accurate, as I subsequently discovered," Stokes said as a wry smile crept across his face.
Crashing out of the Games in 1988 gave the team notoriety, but they were amateurs in every sense, having only begun training five months before competing in Calgary.
"It wasn't even starting at ground zero. It was like starting on a negative!" Stokes said, recalling his journey from the Caribbean's sweltering sunshine to the coldest and bitterest corners of Earth.
Despite the initial hostility, Stokes has developed an affinity for Cool Runnings some 25 years on, warming to the infectious flick that melted hearts across the world.
"Looking back, I realise that these things were probably not that important to be true to in a movie," the 59-year-old said, saying his children, Christian, Teressa, and Michael, have helped him soften his perspective.
"About 10 years after its release, my children watched it. They came home, wide-eyed, and said 'You didn't tell us about this!' so I had to watch it again with them."
Their love for the movie made him like it too: "At the end of the day, it [the film] captures a spirit which is bigger than me."
Stokes continued: "It's a movie that you can watch today and even with all the change in social attitudes, the movie plays well after 30 years."
In Beijing, Stokes has high hopes for the Jamaican men's squad who he feels closely connected to. Team member Shanwayne Stephens also followed a similar route into the sport.
JAMAICA, WE HAVE A BOBSLED TEAM HEADING TO BEIJING! 📣
It will be fire on ice as #TeamJamaica 🇯🇲 secured their spot at the 2022 Beijing #WinterOlympics. This will be the 1st time JAM has qualified in 3 Olympic bobsled events: four-man, two-man and women’s monobob pic.twitter.com/hRd5h7lDlG
— Team Jamaica (@TeamJA876) January 17, 2022
"He moved to England aged 14 and joined the Royal Air Force (RAF)," Stokes said.
The team's training, the veteran said, has been "well-structured and they are accomplished athletes".
Rolando Reid, Ashley Watson, and Matthew Wekpe comprise the rest of the side. The Jamaican team confirmed their qualification on Twitter, adding that it will be "fire on ice" at the Winter Games - an obvious nod to Cool Runnings.
"We have some plusses," Stokes added, "including a decent female team which qualified in Pyeongchang [host city of the 2018 Winter Olympics]."
"The individual athletes in the Jamaica programme are working very hard, and I wish them all the best in Beijing."
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