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Soul on Ice

Ticket to ride: Former Jamaican bobsledder Devon Harris.

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.

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."


Channel 9 has scheduled Harris for two appearances. The first, in which he explains how a bobsled hurtles down a track of ice, goes well -- "Fabulous!" Lopez says, even though her microphone cord tangles in the bobsled's hardware and she can't extricate herself from the sled until after the camera has been turned off.

Harris is shuttled to a lounge area to wait for the next segment. A security guard wanders in. "Were you on the actual team?" he asks.

"Yeah," Harris answers. The guard thinks this over before pressing on.

"Were you in the movie? 'Cause when I heard there was someone from the Jamaican bobsled team in the building, I was like, 'Whoaaaa.' Which one are you?"

"The handsome one," Harris replies, giving his stock answer.

Most people don't remember that the Calgary Games also featured bobsled teams from the Virgin Islands and Netherlands Antilles. Even the Jamaicans hadn't shown up out of nowhere. "They had been around for a while," recalls Robert Storey, president of the FIBT -- the Switzerland-based International Federation of Bobsleigh and Tobogganing.

"There was a competition within the competition they called the 'Caribbean Cup,'" recalls Owen Neale, vice president of the Calgary Bobsled Club, who worked behind the scenes at the Games. "The Virgin Islands team set records for the amount of alcohol you could drink and still get down the hill. It was known for some time that the Jamaicans would be coming, but no one predicted how big they'd become. Something just happened, and suddenly everybody wanted a piece of them."

Including Hollywood. Following the team's wildly popular appearance at the Calgary Games, promoters began shopping the idea for a film. A screenwriter finally sold it to Disney, and the movie was released in 1993.

Cool Runnings has been both a blessing and a persistent curse for Harris. Many more people, particularly children, know about the Jamaican bobsled team from the Disney version of the story than from the actual Olympics. Yet Harris also devotes big chunks of his public appearances to gently setting the record straight between fact and fiction.

A prime source of confusion is that none of the movie athletes correspond to the four real bobsledders. Rather, they are stock characters that appear in every Disney movie drama: the Dreamer, the Funny One (in this case with dreadlocks, which none of the team members had), the Angry Brooder With the Heart of Gold, and the Self-Doubter Who Grows.

In the movie, the team discovers its mojo when the sledders chant "Feel the rhythm, feel the rhyme, get on up, it's bobsled time" before pushing off down the track. "What we actually said," Harris explains, "is, 'Set, two, three, four.'" He shrugs. "It's Hollywood."

In the movie's climactic scene -- real footage from the Olympics crash is used -- the team members hoist the sled onto their shoulders and walk across the finish line. It's a goose-bumper. Yet the image inspires continuing harassment from real bobsledders, who, whenever they see the Jamaicans struggling to slide a 500- to 600-pound sled into position for a run, ask why they don't simply lift it onto their shoulders.

The last bit of fiction that comes out of Cool Runnings is that it made the team rich. "We got the wrong piece of the pie," Harris says. "They claim the movie has not made any profits yet. It's almost sinful."


"Okay," Lopez instructs Harris just before the second interview. "We're still going to talk about bobsledding, but I'm also going to ask you about Evanston."

As they return to Channel 9's backyard, Lunsford preps Harris on PR points to remember. "JumboTron on Main Street showing the Games, ice-carving competition, chainsaw carving, rickshaw races," he reminds him.

"And it's only 45 minutes to Salt Lake City," Harris adds.

"Right," says Lunsford.

"Fabulous," Bruno says after the segment, in which Harris plugs Evanston shamelessly.

"Beautiful," agrees Lunsford.

 

In the nearly fourteen years and four Winter Olympic Games since its first appearance, the Jamaican bobsled team has worked hard to dispel the impression that it is simply a novelty act. Making the job more difficult is the fact that the team's notoriety spawned a mini-movement of Olympic dabblers, and so the Jamaicans have been forced to extricate themselves not just from their own absurd story line, but also from copycats.

The Jamaican bobsled team was not the only sideshow at the 1988 Games. Britain's Eddie Edwards, dubbed "Eddie the Eagle," also made his debut. Edwards drew giant crowds every time he flew off the ski jump -- a sport he'd taken up less than two years earlier. Of the four jumps he attempted, Edwards landed only one; it was dozens of yards short of those being made by other, more serious jumpers.

Despite a subsequent Games rules change designed to prevent future promotional creations -- occasionally referred to as the "Jamaican Bobsled Rule" -- other athletic advertisements have showed up at the Olympics. At Nagano in 1998, in an unabashed marketing campaign cast as athletic outreach, Nike suited up a team of Kenyan distance runners (in swooshes, of course) to try their luck at cross-county skiing. Despite Nike's quarter-million-dollar subsidy, the Kenyans finished dead last.

Two years later, Eric Moussambani of Equatorial Guinea entered the Atlanta Olympics as a 100-meter swimmer. Nicknamed "Eric the Eel," he'd learned to swim only months earlier. Permitted to join the Games as an attention-drawing ploy by FINA, international swimming's governing body, he, too, finished last by a wide margin.

Unlike Eddie the Eagle and Eric the Eel and the other 1988 Caribbean bobsled teams, the Jamaicans have shown up at every Winter Olympics since Calgary. They've improved dramatically. In 1994, in Lillehammer, the team placed fourteenth overall -- ahead of the Americans. And this past year, the Jamaicans' two-man -- and two-woman -- team placed first in the World Push Championships, a pavement contest preparatory to the ice season.


Following their team's triumphant debut in Canada, Harris and his teammates returned to their normal lives. Harris went back to the army, finally retiring in 1992 as a captain. Eager to see more of the world that he'd begun to experience as a bobsledder, he moved to New York City.

The following years were lean. He worked in the kitchen of a Jamaican restaurant, prepping food, cutting meat. Later he found a job as a receiving clerk in a warehouse. He and his wife scraped by. In late 1996 he decided to return to bobsledding, so he quit his job and started training. By 1997, he'd run through his savings.

Like many people, Paul Skog, an attorney in the small southwestern Wyoming town of Evanston, was smitten by Cool Runnings. "It was the Rocky of bobsled movies," he says. And it gave Skog, an active town booster, an idea: "to marry a crazy Caribbean nation with backwater Wyoming." Skog felt each had something to offer the other: The Jamaicans needed a place to train with snow, and Evanston could use some publicity.

So Skog contacted the Jamaican Bobsled Federation and invited the team to Wyoming. Desperate for money, the team agreed. In May 1997, using seed money from a local business, Evanston flew the team, now including Harris, out to Wyoming. A month later, the team agreed to use the town as its winter training grounds.

Evanston rose to the occasion -- and to greet the national spotlight. A local Chevy dealership lent the Jamaicans a truck. A landlord gave them an apartment. Domino's Pizza hired the team members as delivery boys. (Although a hit with Evanston's pizza-ordering population, the idea fizzled after the INS began asking questions.)

As Skog had anticipated, it was a great story. Sports Illustrated stopped by. So did CNN. And even though today the team's current members stop by largely as a courtesy, a Jamaican flag still flutters outside Skog's downtown law office, and the city continues to bill itself as the "Winter Home of the Jamaican Bobsled Team."

Now, in preparation for the Salt Lake City Olympics coming up in February, Evanston has mounted a marketing blitz, positioning itself as a convenient gateway to the Games. Town officials are hoping that with its proximity to Salt Lake and unusual number of hotel rooms (about 1,100 in a city of 11,000), Evanston will profit mightily.

To press the point, the town called Harris in to help with publicity. And Skog has still more attention-getting ideas. "We're hoping to get the vice president out here," he says. "I have this visual picture of the Vice President of the United States ice-fishing with the Jamaican bobsled team. Wouldn't that be a great photo op?"

 


Harris's next stop is a 7:40 a.m. appearance on Channel 2. The convoy blasts down I-25 to the station's Tech Center offices, where Harris is met in the foyer by a young news producer. "You look like you could bench-press a bobsled with one hand," she coos.

"Devon's a babe magnet," Lunsford explains.

After a short wait in a lounge overlooking the studio, Harris is brought to the set and introduced to morning anchor Tom Green, a former sports reporter who greets him politely. To kick off the segment, the station has dragged out footage of the bobsled team's 1988 crash. "It looks worse than it was," Harris says. The two talk for a couple of minutes, and then the spot is over.

"He was a good interviewer," Bruno says. "Right on top of it."

A tall, nervous-looking woman is hovering near the exit, accompanied by a man with a camera. "Your story was just so inspirational to me," she says, as Harris approaches. She grabs him in an intimate hug and holds tight. Harris hugs her back. "That movie they made about you -- it was so wonderful," she whispers. "Thank you."

Later in the afternoon, Harris will stop by Children's Hospital to visit with patients. First, though, he's scheduled to speak in front of two assemblies at Morey Middle School, telling the mostly black and Hispanic children of his own humble beginnings and letting them know that they should not be afraid to dream big. He goes out of his way to talk to kids on each of his trips, and it is his favorite part of the job.

"I just have this desire to influence people positively," he says, then adds, "I don't know what I'd be doing if I wasn't doing this."

At Morey, he's greeted by the vice principal, a severe-looking man with a cell phone strapped to his belt. "So let me ask you," he asks. "Which guy are you in the movie?"

"The handsome one," Harris answers.

As always, he will field questions about the bobsled team and try to explain the differences between his life and the movie version the children have been shown in preparation for this visit. Afterward, he will be mobbed by the sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders. He will sign autographs until the last one leaves the auditorium to return to class.

Now, however, he waits behind a curtain as the children file into the room. Then, as his introduction is made, Harris raises his hands to the roof, stretches high and heads onto the stage.


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