Business

Denver Connection to the Jamaican Bobsled Team

Two members of the Jamaican bobsled team showing off their Popongo-branded sled, and a portrait of game inventor Error Anderson.
Two members of the Jamaican bobsled team showing off their Popongo-branded sled, and a portrait of game inventor Error Anderson. Courtesy of Errol Anderson
The Jamaican bobsled team became a pop-culture phenomenon after the four-man squad representing the Caribbean nation, where temperatures seldom dip below 70 degrees Fahrenheit, competed during the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary. The team notched a DNF — Did Not Finish — but won global fame that was captured in the 1993 Disney film Cool Runnings.

Since then, Jamaica has taken part in what are officially known as bobsleigh events at many winter contests, though the focus for the past couple of decades has been on two-man competitions — and Jamaica's women's team debuted in 2018. But the four-man unit is back for the first time since 1998 at the 2022 Olympics in Beijing, complete with fly new uniforms and a sleigh featuring logos of sponsors, with arguably the most unusual being Popongo, a game invented by Errol Anderson, a Jamaican by birth now living in Denver.

"Puma has been around for as long as many of us can remember," Anderson points out, "and Popongo has been around one year. But on the team's suits, it says 'Puma,' and right under that it says, 'Popongo.'"

The game is something of a cross between cornhole and Skee-Ball in which contestants take turns tossing what like like foam golf balls toward a board festooned with cups offering different point values (read the complete rules here).

Anderson grew up around Montego Bay, and after attending college in England, he decided to move to the United States — and he chose Denver because he wanted to be somewhere that had four seasons as opposed to Jamaica's variations on one. "When I go back, I'm like, 'Wow, it's hot!'" he notes, laughing.

He didn't set out to become a professional game-maker. Indeed, he earns his living with Denver's  Everyday Hero Housing Assistance Fund, which he says "helps teachers, police, firefighters, medical professionals and others afford a home," and the affiliated Military Housing Assistance Fund. But the COVID-19 pandemic that first hit Colorado during the early months of 2020 led to his sideline.

"Popongo happened out of boredom," he admits. "My friends and I would play basketball together every weekend, and then we'd hang out in the park after that. But then everybody was in lockdown, and all we could do was communicate with group messages."
click to enlarge A look at a Popongo board. - COURTESY OF ERROL ANDERSON
A look at a Popongo board.
Courtesy of Errol Anderson
With basketball off limits, the pals tried to figure out another outdoor activity that would be fun but keep everyone at a safe distance — and Anderson thought cornhole filled the bill. He bought a board for $165 and took it to a gathering, but the idea was a bust. "I think two guys played it for five or ten minutes and that was it," he recalls. "And I didn't love the idea that I'd spent $165 for something nobody cared about."

Afterward, Anderson went online and tried to find a more appealing game, but came up dry. "So I challenged myself to do something better," he recalls. "I started jotting down ideas in a little notebook and came up with about fifteen different designs," as well as a color scheme that supplemented the hues on the Jamaican flag (black, yellow and green) with red "for our African descendants" and blue "for our beautiful ocean waters."

Next, he purchased "a thin piece of plywood" and took it to the workshop of his friend Keesh Pankey of Desibl, a local design firm. Pankey helped him create the Popongo board, and once it was ready, Anderson tried it out at home. "I thought, 'I'll play for a couple of hours to see how it works,'" he says. "But I spent about seven hours writing rules, changing rules, adding rules, and when I looked up and saw it was four o'clock in the morning, I thought, 'Holy crap. I must be on to something, because this is really fun.'"

Eventually, Anderson decided to turn what he dubbed Popongo into an actual business; he took over half of Pankey's wood shop and began manufacturing games, which he's currently selling for $139.99 — less than the $165 he shelled out for that unloved cornhole board. And while he's only sold about 500 boards so far, the response he's received from folks who've tried out the game has convinced him that it has the potential to become a blockbuster — if he can manage to get the word out.

Enter the Jamaican bobsled team.

"I was able to make contact with them," he reveals, "and they loved Popongo, loved meeting with me, and that put a relationship in place where I ended up being one of their sponsors."

The Olympic bobsleigh events get underway today, February 11, with heats in the women's monobob — a one-person sled. The qualifying rounds for the four-man teams are slated to start a week from today, on February 18, and Anderson says he has big plans to build on the exposure he'll get from the Jamaicans' appearance.

He's currently developing a Popongo app that will adapt the game for handheld devices but can't be used without moving. "You still have to stand up and play it and be active," he stresses. "Kids have been spending a lot of time at home, and this will get them moving." A charity component will also be built in, so that part of every app subscription will be donated to organizations helping young people and other good causes. Anderson says he'd also love to partner with local government agencies to get Popongo into recreation centers and schools across Denver.

"I feel lucky to say that I helped create something that will bring happiness into people's lives, and that can give a certain level of pride to the Jamaican people, " he concludes. "Hopefully, it will add to our legacy and I'll be able to say to the youth in the Caribbean one day, 'If I can do it, you can do it.'"

Click for the schedule of bobsled events at the 2022 Winter Olympics.
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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts