Soul on Ice

Everything you know about the Jamaican bobsled team is more fiction than fact, but the truth is still cool.

At 4:45 in the morning, the streets are empty. Devon Harris, captain of the original Jamaican bobsled team, and Rick Lunsford, Olympic coordinator for the city of Evanston, Wyoming, are racing down Speer Boulevard in a massive Ford SUV. The U-Haul in back holds a bobsled. Lunsford jams down the accelerator, trying to keep up with the car in front, which is driven by Paul Bruno, a Salt Lake City public-relations guy who is escorting Harris on his whirlwind tour of Denver. Jimmy Cliff pours out of the CD player.

"I grew up listening to this guy," Harris says. "It brings me back."

The Jamaican bobsled team's enduring fame is one of the most curious stories in all of sports. After a few months' practice, the hastily assembled group of novice bobsledders showed up at the 1988 Winter Olympic Games in Calgary. On their only run down the track, they crashed spectacularly. Then, in one of those rare moments of serendipity that defy rational explanation, they became instant heroes.

Ticket to ride: Former Jamaican bobsledder Devon Harris.
Ticket to ride: Former Jamaican bobsledder Devon Harris.

Even more odd, the team's celebrity has persisted. Disney made a movie about the team, and the words "Jamaican bobsled team" entered the popular lexicon. A quick Internet search yields thousands of references, in everything from ironic humor to inspirational lectures and church sermons. Recently, a group of Hawaiians began assembling a team of their own, claiming that the Polynesian islands were the real home of downhill sled racing.

At 37, dressed in his black-and-green uniform, Harris is still muscular and athletic-looking. More than a decade later, he's making a comfortable living off of the team's fame. Today he travels around the world, appearing at corporate functions and civic events where, for $5,000 plus expenses, he tells his life story, tailoring his speeches to whatever motivational message his employer desires.

"People still have an interest in us," he says. "It's amazing. I was in New Zealand this past August, as a marshal in a parade, and it was unbelievable. People just loved us." He shrugs his shoulders: It's a mystery.

The first scheduled stop on this morning's itinerary is a live interview on Channel 9's "backyard" outdoor studio. The convoy pulls into the station, and Bruno rushes up to a cameraman. "We're here to see Jennifer Lopez," he says.

"I wish," answers the cameraman. "It's Anita Lopez."

The bobsled is heaved out of the U-Haul and, with great effort, set up on a stand in front of the camera. Lopez appears in a parka, introduces herself and begins the pre-interview in preparation for the live spot.

"Now, there's no snow in Jamaica," she says. "How'd you get into bobsledding?"

A big reason that Harris is still in such demand for interviews is that he can negotiate the narrow path between novelty act and genuine Olympic athlete. People are interested in hearing his story of Olympic accomplishment, yet there is always a smirk behind the questions, the giddy anticipation of a punchline. Harris is successful because he rolls with it all.

The possibilities of coupling the world's most prestigious winter athletic event with a bobsled team...(pause for effect)... from the tropical island of Jamaica were recognized from the start. It is telling that the idea, proposed by two American ex-pats living on the islands, first took hold at the country's tourism board, which foresaw a brilliant marketing campaign. Jamaica's top athletes recognized the stunt's sideshow aspect right away, however, and attempts to lure the country's world-class sprinters to the team failed. So the organizers turned to the army.

One of the ironies of Harris's enduring personal celebrity from what began as a one-note joke is that his story is genuinely inspirational. He grew up in the ghettos of Kingston, in one of the city's most notorious public-housing projects, in the shadow of the city's mansions.

As a child, he envisioned a career as a military officer, a dream discouraged by people who said it was impossible for a poor boy to achieve. But Harris persevered, and by 1987 he was a lieutenant in the Jamaican armed forces, having graduated from a top British military school.

Harris had always been a strong runner but was by no means of Olympic caliber. "I always wanted to be a world-class sprinter," he says, "but everybody in Jamaica runs. They're too fast." He was ordered to try out for the new bobsled team by his commanding officer and eventually was selected, along with three others, from among thirty applicants.

After some quick training, more than a few crashes and an intersquad squabble or two (the original driver was replaced for his bad steering and laziness), the team arrived in Calgary. In its first run down the track, in an event televised around the globe, the four-man team flipped over on a high turn and was disqualified.

As an athlete, Harris was horrified. "The whole world was seeing the Jamaicans upside down," he says. "I was so embarrassed."

As a celebrity who can still make a living from a single minute of notoriety, however, he has come to see the value of the epic failure. While the team was popular from the moment it was introduced, its fame was cemented by the drama of the crash. "It was a good thing," Harris says now. "More people remember us because of the crash than anything. That's what immortalized us. That's why I'm here today."

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