Tropical Sledders Make the Grade

Bobsledders bring assets of Jamaica's running and pushcart-racing traditions to the sport

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

WHEN the Jamaican bobsled team appeared at its first Winter Olympics in 1988 in Calgary, Alberta, the group was viewed as a bunch of misplaced Caribbeans. Their whimsical novelty act would surely disappear with the spring thaw, not soon to return.

But return Jamaica has, competing again in France two years ago at the Winter Games, and now, in the wake of a Disney movie about the original team, making it three Olympics in a row by racing here in Lillehammer. Clearly, these are no ``tourist'' athletes or publicity seekers, although they don't shrink from attention, since it has helped to generate necessary financial support.

``We have worked hard to dispel the notion that that we are a flip-flop group that came together in a one-shot deal,'' says Nelson Stokes, a brakeman on the four-man Jamaican team. ``The effort is genuine.''

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Stokes and his older brother, Dudley, a driver of the Jamaican two- and four-man sleds, spoke with convincing sincerity about their commitment to the sport during a well-attended pre-Olympic press conference in Lillehammer.

Six years earlier Dudley, then a helicopter pilot in the Jamaican Defence Forces, dismissed the fear factor in bobsledding by citing a favorite line in an Ian Fleming novel: ``I won't waste my days trying to preserve my life.''

Now, as no-nonsense and articulate as ever, he has the weight of experience and performance to support his statements.

``I now feel we belong in bobsledding as much as any team in the sport,'' he says, pointing to some respectable pre-Olympic results. Among them were a couple of fourth-place finishes in the America's Cup in Calgary, where that first Olympic team overturned its sled on one of its runs.

In last weekend's opening two-man bobsled races at Lillehammer's Hunderfossen track, however, he and Wayne Thomas were disqualified when their sled and crew were 8 lbs. over the maximum weight limit. A spokesman explained that brakeman Thomas had put on weight since the last weighing Wednesday.

Tongue-in-cheek, Dudley calls this year's Jamaican Olympians the ``survivors'' of the '88 team.

Younger brother Nelson, a two-Olympics veteran, provides some of the speed in the push start for the two-man team. He attended the University of Idaho and Washington State University as a track man and is now a financier.

Jamaica is known as a hotbed for world-class sprinters, and Jamaica's presence in bobsledding plays to this strength. Yet speed alone, the Stokes brothers acknowledge, only takes you so far.

``One thing we've learned to do is respect the skill of the traditional powers in the sport,'' Nelson says. Realizing the need to learn from more established teams, the Jamaicans have maintained a close relationship with the Austrian team.

Dudley says that mastering the nuances in the sport takes eight to 10 years. ``By correct application I feel that by the 1998 Olympics in Nagano [Japan] we should be a medal contender,'' he says.

Playing catch-up to the traditional bobsledding powers is difficult, Stokes adds, because Jamaica and other countries don't have ready access to any of the world's limited number of sledding tracks.

He estimates he's logged about 400 rides in his career, while drivers on the top teams do that many runs each season.

Most teams, he says, must travel, which is one of the reasons the brothers don't feel Jamaica's presence in bobsledding should be seen as far-fetched. There's even a natural connection, given the country's popular pushcart races, which bear some resemblance to bobsledding on wheels.

``Ice almost becomes incidental to this sport,'' Dudley Stokes says. ``You don't need to be born on a bobsled to compete. Driving is a mechanical skill, a question of hand-eye coordination, like driving a forklift.''

Nonetheless, Jamaica has been a pioneer in bringing racial diversity to bobsledding and the Winter Olympics, which have long been white athletic precincts.

While acknowledging that the Jamaicans have helped to break down stereotypes, Dudley Stokes says that the ``racial thing'' is ``in many instances overstated.''

The team he says, never consciously sat down and planned to send any kind of multicultural message. ``We enjoy what are are doing and feel we can do it well, given time.''

If there is a ``message,'' the Jamaican driver says, it transcends questions of race and speaks to the larger arena of human capability. ``The conclusion I draw is that it is possible to achieve things once you establish a goal and break things down into do-able pieces.''

This theme comes through in the song, ``Rise Above It'' that the Jamaican sledders recorded in 1988 and which was incorporated into Disney's version of their story, ``Cool Runnings.''

Dudley admits to being apprehensive about seeing the movie, which he suspected would take great artistic liberties. There is no truth to the scene, the says, that depicts the team training in a bathtub. But he is satisfied that the movie ``captured the spirit of what we did. It could have been a lot worse in the wrong way.'' Stokes, who is the managing director of a helicopter tour business, says that the Jamaicans worked out what he calls ``a very modest arrangement'' to receive royalties on the movie in the years ahead.

As for a sequel, the Stokes brothers may hope that if there is one, it will bear a recast title, something like ``Cool Medal Men,'' the story of how pushcarts came to gather gold on ice.

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