November 15, 2014 12:24 am
WARRENTON, Va. – Jamaica once again has a bobsled team.
Twenty-six years after the unlikely group from the Caribbean became the Cinderella story at the Winter Olympics in Calgary, a new generation is set to represent the island nation in Sochi, Russia.
But the original group of men from the tropics racing down an ice-laden chute might never have happened been but for the simple observation of George Fitch, the mayor of Warrenton.
“I basically said, ‘Listen, you’re good athletes, and any good athlete should be able to adapt to sports,'” Fitch recalls. “‘Therefore, you should be in the Winter Olympics.'”
Fitch’s own story hardly recommended his founding of Jamaica’s first Winter Olympics team.
He was born to a missionary family in China. He studied at the University of Singapore; he worked for the Reagan Administration in the Foreign Commercial Service.
No matter – it was his epiphany that got warm-weather sprinters to become Olympic bobsledders.
Having worked previously in Jamaica, Fitch returned from Paris for a wedding in the summer of 1987. The local conversation was all about the Olympics – the Summer Olympics.
But he remained convinced great athletes could compete in most any sport. And so on his flight back from Kingston, Jamaica, he surveyed the list of Winter Olympic events.
Hockey? No team. Nordic combined? Not a chance. Ice skating? No rink.
“It came down to bobsledding, because I knew enough about bobsledding that half the race is how quickly can you push this 600-pound sled,” he says.
But who would fit the bill? Just months before the opening ceremony was to begin, Fitch set up tryouts.
They didn’t go well.
“They were ice-cream vendors. They were fishermen,” Fitch recalls, believing they may have been chiefly interested in getting a visa.
Unbowed, he turned to the local military.
“I said, ‘Who’s our current 100-meter military sprint champion?'” Fitch recalls.
“Michael White,” came the response.
“Get him in here,” Fitch said. “Who’s our current 400 champion?”
“Get him in here,” Fitch said.
“What does it take to drive this thing, this bobsled?” the major asked.
“It takes good hand-eye coordination, good reflexes,” Fitch responded.
“Like a helicopter pilot?” the major asked.
“Like a helicopter pilot,” Fitch said.
“That’s your Jamaican bobsled team,” he says now.
With very little time before the Olympic Games in Calgary, the goal was simple: be competitive and beat some other teams.
In that, they were successful.
In the two-man event, he remembers, “We beat 10 teams. Therefore we made Olympics history.”
The Jamaican bobsled team grew from Olympics lore to a hit at the movies in the film “Cool Runnings.”
The film solidified the team’s place in pop culture, though Fitch didn’t care for its playing up of the crash in the four-man event.
At the 1988 Games, Jamaica had never intended to compete in the four-man bobsled event. Even when it was proposed after finishing the two-man race, there were seemingly insurmountable obstacles.
They didn’t have a four-man sled. They didn’t have any money. They no longer had an available fourth man.
But against the odds, it came together and would ultimately create the indelible image many remember about the team.
The four-man sled would crash violently in a turn, such that Fitch worried whether the team would be paralyzed or worse.
“In true Jamaican fashion, they get out and they start smiling, they start waving
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