The Jamaican bobsled team had a rough ride — even before hitting the icy track at the 2014 Winter Olympics.
When two-man bobsled team members Winston Watts and Marvin Dixon arrived at Sochi’s airport, they discovered that their bobsled’s blades, their sliding suits and helmets didn’t arrive with them.
Despite the gear mishap — the stuff arrived on Thursday — and a missed connecting flight from Moscow to Sochi, it’s still all good for the funkiest and perhaps most famous bobsled team on Earth.
The team is just happy to be in Sochi and thrilled that Jamaica’s back at the Winter Games after a 12-year absence.
And Watts is beaming nonstop. At age 46 he’s a grand old man of bobsledding, coming out of retirement to revive a dormant team and compete in Sochi.
“I’m a 46-year-old guy sitting in a 25-year-old body,” he said, laughing. “There are no words to explain how I feel being back in the Olympics. It’s phenomenal, it’s unreal, it’s like a dream.”
Jamaica made its improbable Olympic debut at the 1988 Winter Games in Calgary, Alberta, with a sled built with borrowed parts from other teams, a feel-good story that was the basis for the 1993 Disney film Cool Runnings.
Years later, JamBob isn’t the best bobsled team in the world, but it’s perhaps one of the most influential. The team’s exploits have inspired other warm-weather countries to enter the Winter Olympics and spawned a generation people — many of them minorities — who have gravitated to bobsledding and other winter sports.
“The people love us like crazy,” Watts said. “This movie, Cool Runnings, really opened the way for a lot of different nations’ athletes. Every time they see the Jamaica bobsled team, they always sharing with us: ‘Hey, I just saw the Cool Runnings movie.’ It’s something the rest of the world, they cannot stop talk about.”
Jazmine Fenlator, one of five women of color of the U.S. women’s bobsled team, said Cool Runnings helped steer her toward bobsledding. She watched it as a child and traded lines from the movie with her father, who’s Jamaican.
“That movie was one of my favorite movies growing up,” said Fenlator, a bobsled pilot who’s become fast friends with Watts. “Winston Watts is a great athlete who’s overcome so much coming from a small nation, living in the United States, competing in a huge sport like bobsled, trying to revamp his nation’s bobsled team, and providing diversity in winter sport.”
Jamaica appears intent on being a winter sports staple. Watts’ goal is to keep the bobsled team’s legacy alive. And Jamaica joined the International Ice Hockey Federation in 2012 with the goal of competing in the Winter Olympics in the near future. The nation of 1.9 million people currently has one indoor ice rink and about 20 hockey players, according to the IIHF.
Watts likes to say his team brings the rhythm, the rhyme and the sunshine to the bobsled track. But they also bring a competitive fire. While Olympic medals are probably out of reach for Jamaica in Sochi, Watts and company have come here to be serious competitors and show the world that they’re no novelty act.
To do so, Watts and his teammates traded their Caribbean island home for chilly Evanston, Wyo. — population 12,262, elevation 6,749 feet above sea level — to train. Watts even moved his elderly mother there.
“She can’t get over it,” he said. “I have to keep pushing her, keep pushing her to get her some exercise going so her body to adapt to the elevation that we are. The cold is kind of easy to get over. You can pile on a lot of clothing, but you cannot get over the high altitude.”
The town is about 6 miles from Park City, Utah, home of the bobsled track used in the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City.
“I’m approaching the Olympics as an underdog,” he said. “I know I train very hard, I know I get out of retirement. I didn’t getting out of retirement just to be at the Olympics. I’m getting out of retirement because I want to achieve my goal. I’m going there to execute what I’m supposed to execute and the results, they will come.”
The team has had flashes of success. In 2002, with Watts at the helm, Jamaica’s two-man bobsled set an Olympic record on the Park City track with a 4.78-second time in the push-start segment of the race.
JamBob’s four-man crew finished 14th at the 1994 Winter Games in Lillehammer, Norway, beating out bobsleds from the United States, Russia, France and Canada.
But the team fell on hard times. It didn’t qualify for the 2006 Winter Games in Turin, Italy, or the 2010 Vancouver Games. The team has been unable to find the kind of deep-pocketed sponsor that medal-contending countries have.
“Money is a key factor in the sport,” Watts said. “If there’s no money, you can’t achieve at the goal you want to achieve. It’s a very expensive sport. Once a team can get a company to sponsor, just like the U.S. team — they have BMW — that’s why they can be where they are now.”
Watts and Dixon earned an Olympics slot by earning enough points in low-tier North American bobsled contests to qualify for Sochi. They also made it here through the kindness of friends and strangers who donated $178,000 to the team largely through online fundraisers.
Now the Jamaican bobsledders are out to prove that while money is important, it isn’t everything.
“It’s the heart we have,” Watts said.