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Jamaica's Devon Harris recalls Cool Runnings in Calgary

The Jamaican bobsleigh team

Jamaican bobsleigh team crash out in 1988

By Dave Lee
BBC World Service

Devon Harris used to sit at home in Jamaica and watch the Olympics, dreaming of one day emulating his heroes.

As a middle-distance runner, he would look at the likes of Britons Sebastian Coe and Steve Ovett with admiration.

And in 1988, his Olympic aspirations finally came true when he became part of the legendary Jamaican bobsleigh team competing in the Calgary Winter Games.

The quartet of Harris, Dudley Stokes, Michael White and Samuel Clayton quickly won hearts and imaginations, managing to overwhelm expectations before spectacularly crashing out on their final run.

"We're heading down the track and the run felt good," Harris, speaking to BBC World Service's Witness programme.

"Then we get off corner eight and we hit the wall. You never want to hit the wall."

As the driver, Harris tried to pull the bobsleigh straight before turn nine.

"That didn't happen," he said. "Next thing I knew my head was hitting the ice.

"I just remember thinking, How embarrassing, we crashed."

Miraculously, the team were unharmed, climbing out of the bobsleigh with nothing more than scratches.

But rather than humiliation, the four-strong team experienced the polar opposite.

"As we were walking down the braking stretch, feeling rather sorry for ourselves and embarrassed, I remember the crowd just started to cheer," said Harris.

"One guy reached over to shake my hand. Everybody else after that started to shake my hand."

Far from being perceived as failures, the quartet returned to Jamaica as national heroes.

"We thought we'd be ridiculed and chased out of town," said Harris.

Devon Harris
"I just remember there and then thinking, Man, this bobsled thing is harder than I thought"

Devon Harris

"It couldn't have been further from the truth. We got home and people were just very proud of us. The government of Jamaica actually put stamps out with our faces."

It was a remarkable, heart-warming story which captured the imagination of sports fans everywhere - not to mention filmmakers as the tale was adapted into the 1993 comedy, Cool Runnings.

Their achievement was made the more remarkable considering none of the team had walked on ice, let alone raced in a bobsleigh, six months before the 1988 Olympics.

"I just knew it was a sport that was fast and dangerous," said Harris.

Their participation was down to two American businessmen, George Fitch and William Maloney, who convinced Jamaica's army chief Colonel Ken Barnes - father of former Liverpool and England footballer John - to help put together a team.

"The first day, we turned up at the national stadium in Kingston and they ushered us into a room and showed us footage of old bobsled crashes," remembered Harris.

"There were about 40 of us that day. The next day, only about 20 people turned up for the trials proper."

The 1988 Jamaican bobsleigh team practice starting with a makeshift sleigh
Practising bobsleigh at home in Jamaica without the sleigh - or the ice

A team was eventually selected but, with just four months until the Olympics, there was plenty of work to do - starting with a trip to Lake Placid to be introduced their eventual foe, the ice.

"We couldn't even walk! We spent more time on our butts than we did actually running," laughed Harris.

"I just remember there and then thinking, Man, this bobsled thing is harder than I thought."

Undeterred, they returned to Jamaica to put in some much-needed practice - three hours every day, six at weekends, all on a makeshift sleigh in an army base.

But despite their minimal time on ice, the team headed to Calgary for the 1988 Games.

But before their big moment there was one final twist; an injury.

Less than a week before the first race, team member Caswell Allen slipped and had to be replaced by Chris Stokes, who, up until that point, had never seen a bobsleigh before.

"Chris came to watch his brother (Dudley) race, and we put him on the sled," said Harris.

"He was a sprinter. We turned up at the track, and ended up pushing the seventh fastest start time.

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"That one week of really intense, focused training came together in that one moment at the start.

"He wasn't even part of the Olympic delegation. I have to believe that George Fitch probably used a couple bottles of Jamaican rum to bribe the Olympic officials!"

Stokes eventually went on to write Cool Runnings and Beyond, a book about his Olympic experience.

Sadly for the Jamaicans, and all fans of the plucky underdog, there was to be no fairytale ending - at least not in a sporting sense.

However, the legacy of the Jamaican bobsleigh team lived on. They qualified for the 1992 Games, and again in 1996.

The team still exists today - although they are not allowed to compete in Vancouver this year.

Devon, meanwhile, is now a children's author and motivational speaker, preaching his simple motto: "Keep on pushing."

You can hear Witness' complete interview with Devon Harris this Thursday at 0050 and 0850 GMT on the BBC World Service, and on-demand at BBCWorldService.com .



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see also
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02 Mar 09 |  Winter Sports
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