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TCI Bobsledder

The real backstory of “Cool Runnings.”

By Ben Stubenberg

“Life is a struggle. Anything worth doing in life is a struggle. 

And anytime you enter a struggle, you are going to suffer. 

People think suffering is something to be avoided. 

No! Suffering is reality.” 

— Tal Stokes

On a windy February morning in 1988, the captain of the first Jamaican bobsled team stood at the top of the Olympic course in Calgary and stared down the steep track coated with fresh, fast ice that glared back in the bright sun. In the stands to either side, he saw a sea of fluttering colors from national banners and heard the ardent rattling of cowbells the Swiss and Austrian fans had brought to cheer their teams. But this time, the flags waved and the bells rang for the improbable sight of four black men from a tropical Caribbean island as they moved their sled to the start line.

The captain went through a mental ritual to filter out the frenzy around him and shed all negative thoughts. With his mind clear and focused on the present, he pulled down his goggles—the physical signal to execute. And then, as the world watched, the four men sprinted as one, pushing over 600 lbs. (270 kg) of steel and fiberglass down the chute and hurling themselves into history, and our hearts.

Most of us have seen the lovable, hit movie “Cool Runnings.” But how did these guys from a country with no snow or ice really make it to the Winter Olympics? And what did it take to compete in this decidedly dangerous and, quite frankly, clubby sport?

Team Captain Dudley “Tal” Stokes enjoyed his early childhood on Grand Turk with the freedom to explore the beaches and salt ponds.

As it turns out, the actual story is far more compelling than the film. Let’s start with the little known fact that the team captain, Dudley “Tal” Stokes, is from Grand Turk. Yes, the iconic underdog who nimbly steered the bobsled speeding through 16 treacherous turns against the best on the planet is also one of us.

The early years

In 1961, newly ordained minister Dudley Stokes and his wife Blossom Nelson Stokes arrived on Grand Turk from Jamaica as Baptist missionaries. Tal was born the following year. Back then, TCI did not have a Baptist minister, so every couple of weeks, Pastor Dudley would set off in a canoe with a small outboard motor to visit the scattered settlements and minister to the faithful. These trips were often fraught with peril, as sudden squalls could quickly swamp and sink small boats, particularly when crossing the Turks & Caicos Channel. Dozens, if not hundreds, of Turks & Caicos Islanders had lost their lives during voyages like this. But Pastor Stokes never wavered in his commitment to reach out to everyone despite the hazards. Both Dudley and Blossom had big, generous hearts and a gift for connecting with people.

At the time, the Turks & Caicos Islands and Jamaica were colonies of Great Britain, but with TCI by far the less developed and more neglected of the two. The paucity of medical services during the early 1960s, in particular, posed a life-threatening risk to residents if they needed emergency treatment. Pregnant women who developed complications during childbirth were especially vulnerable. Blossom witnessed far too many young women and babies dying during childbirth. When she became pregnant with Tal’s younger brother, Christian, she took no chances and had the baby in Jamaica.

Tal enjoyed his early childhood on Grand Turk with the freedom to explore the beaches and salt ponds. But blissful as life was, he could also see and internalize the anguish on his mother’s face when another member of the community was taken away too early.

The family moved back to Jamaica in 1966 where Pastor Dudley became a circuit preacher in St. Mary Parrish near Ocho Rios. Tal attended prep school and proved to be a bright student and good at sports, particularly football (soccer). At age 9, however, his younger brother Chris beat him in a running race on the beach, making painfully plain who was the better athlete.

When Tal was 15, the coach cut him from the school football team and he came home distraught. Blossom, already known for her irrepressible personality, promptly marched over to the school with pen and paper and demanded to speak with the coach. But she didn’t ask him to reconsider his decision. Instead, she returned home with a list of 16 weaknesses which the coach had given her and said, “This is why you are not on the team.” That was another life lesson that Tal took to heart—break down your flaws and work on them.

Tal Stokes trains in Jamaica with his son.

At 18, Tal joined the Jamaican Army straight out of school and went through officer training—first in Jamaica and then at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst in the UK. Later, he was selected for training as a helicopter pilot and sent to flight school in Manitoba, Canada. Military life appealed to Tal, as it gave him opportunities to build technical skills and work with people from different countries. Both would serve him well when he became a bobsledder. While in the military, he met and dated Denise Muir, also a Jamaican Army officer. She was a crack shot with both rifle and pistol and, like Tal, fit and bright. On a lark, she decided to become a competitive body-builder. They would marry in 1985, and she would become his biggest supporter.

Creating the bobsled team

In July 1987, two American friends, George Fitch and William Maloney, stopped in one of their favorite bars in Kingston for rum and cokes. They both loved Jamaica and felt part of the community. George had recently worked as the commercial attaché at the US Embassy in Jamaica, but he dreamed of doing something different, like maybe make a movie someday. William, a successful businessman and married to a prominent Jamaican, also yearned for something unique, like perhaps march in the opening ceremonies of the Olympics.

The story varies, but after a couple more drinks, they saw on the TV screen a push cart derby competition. This was a popular event in Jamaica, and one they were quite familiar with. And that’s when the preposterous idea hit: Why not form a Jamaican bobsled team using Jamaica’s world-class sprinters to compete in the upcoming Winter Olympics next year? George and William pitched the idea to the Jamaica Olympic Association and got general support. They then tried to recruit sprinters preparing for the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul. But none were interested in bobsledding. The two Americans also reached out to sports clubs and even posted ads in newspapers but got little interest.

Finally in August, George approached his friend Colonel Ken Barnes, who was in charge of sports in the Jamaican Army, and asked him if the military could provide athletes for a team. He got a yes without hesitation. With the Olympics just five months away, Col. Barnes asked/ordered 30 top athletes to try out for the team, including Tal. Though Tal was fit and an excellent player on the Army football team, he was not as athletically gifted as the others. However, he had something else—outstanding hand-eye coordination that he had developed as a helicopter pilot. Indeed, the precision skills to fly a helicopter were quite similar to the split-second timing of piloting a high-tech piece of bobsled machinery sliding over ice at breakneck speed.

George and William found a couple of American Olympic bobsledders whom they talked into flying to Jamaica to evaluate the skills of the men Col. Barnes had brought together. Their task was made easier when most of the prospective bobsledders dropped out after seeing videos of bobsleds crashing. Of the remaining 12 military men, the Americans chose Tal, Michael White, and Devon Harris with the idea of forming 2 two-man bobsled teams. Later civilians Sammy Clayton, Freddie Powell, and Caswell Allen would be added.

Of course, Jamaica had neither bobsleds nor a bobsled track, making the whole notion of even qualifying for the Olympics problematic. But they got creative and persuaded a local company to build an iron sled on wheels. The idea was to practice pushing the sled fast and get the timing down for hopping in. In bobsledding, the start is crucial for a fast run.

“We created quite a stir on the military helicopter tarmac right in the heart of Kingston, with cars stopping to see what was going on. But we worked every day to perfect the start. What we never did, however, is drive a cart down a hill, as portrayed in ‘Cool Runnings.’ Steering a cart is nothing like steering a bobsled, so that exercise would have been pointless. For that, we needed to go down a real bobsled run.”

Seeing the potential for publicity, the Jamaican Tourist Board provided some funding for the team to prepare, but George and William put up the bulk of the cash from their own accounts. They also talked Howard Siler, an American bobsledder in the 1980 Olympics, into taking on the coaching job for free. In September, the team flew to Lake Placid, New York, where they saw their first bobsled course. However, the course was not iced, so they couldn’t even make their first practice run. Instead, Howard taught the team how to run on ice in an indoor ice rink and refine their start skills.

Prepping for the Olympics

This is the Jamaican Bobsled team in Jamaica in January 1988 (from left): Michael White, Dudley Stokes, Devon Harris, and Frederick Powell.

On October 19, the team and Coach Howard traveled to Calgary where they were finally able to go down an iced track. George also decided to fly to Calgary on the same day, which happened to be Black Monday when the US stock market took one of the worst nosedives ever. George was heavily invested in the stock market so by the time he landed in Calgary, he was essentially broke. William, too, was forced to rein in his spending. All of this meant the Jamaican bobsled team was running out of money fast. Nonetheless, the team forged ahead and managed to borrow a two-man bobsled to begin training with the Olympics just four months away.

A new team doesn’t start at the top of the course. That’s too dangerous. Rather, they begin at the bottom quarter of the track to get a feel for how the bobsled moves up and down the banks. Once comfortable, they practice from the halfway mark, then the 3/4, and then—when ready to hit speeds of 80–90 miles (130–145 km) per hour—from the top.

To steer a bobsled, a driver uses two cables attached to the front runners, pulling to the right or left. As the sled descends, the driver must find the “pressure points” created by gravity and G-forces and adjust ever so slightly.

Piloting a bobsled has much in common with driving a Formula 1 race car. The team also had to master the intricacies of bobsled maintenance and preparation, such as ensuring that the runners are properly aligned and sanded and polished smooth to produce maximum speed.

“It wasn’t much fun and there wasn’t much laughing. I personally was very driven because I recognized the kind of mountain that was in front of me. So, I was not particularly nice to the rest of the team. As far as I was concerned, I was the ranking officer, and I needed to get things done.”

The team still had to qualify for the Olympics and entered a qualifying event in Igls, Austria. They had just enough money for air tickets and hotel rooms. To pay for meals, they sold T-shirts emblazoned with the Jamaican Bobsled Team. The number of shirts they sold during the day determined the quality of the food they would have that evening. Both of the two-man teams posted good enough times in Austria to compete in Calgary.

In January 1988, the team resumed training in Lake Placid, this time going down the track. After two weeks, Sammy, the driver for the second bobsled, quit for personal reasons and Freddie had moved on as well. That left only Tal’s two-man team to compete. Michael, Devon, and Caswell came to Tal with a proposal: Why not try to enter as a four-man bobsled team so that everyone could complete their Olympic journey? Tal agreed even though he had not yet driven a four-man bobsled.

George approached the Olympic and Bobsleigh Federation officials about the Jamaicans competing in a four-man bobsled. At first, the officials rebuffed them, but after several prominent bobsledders supported the proposal, the officials agreed. The team managed to borrow a four-man sled at Lake Placid, and got in four practice runs.

Calgary

Tal’s Olympic career would span ten years and four Winter Olympics, including Lillehammer in 1994 (shown here).

The TV and print media knew a good story when they saw one and hyped the Jamaican bobsled team well before the Olympics. So when the team got to Calgary, fans and reporters mobbed them—so much so that they couldn’t leave the Olympic Village. In the village, star Olympic athletes were asking to take pictures with them and getting their autographs. Tal struggled to come to terms with the publicity because they didn’t have a single accomplishment other than qualifying to get there.

The Americans in Lake Placid lent the team a two-man bobsled and shipped it to Calgary. But they still needed a four-man sled. George talked to the Canadians, who found one they could use. It was not in good condition, but the team went to work fixing it up.

“Keeping the bobsled in top shape and moving it around required 24/7 focus for us. It was hard and gritty work, really a brutal existence because we had so little time to get ready. Basically, we had to change our way of doing things—so we adopted the sledding culture of the Germans, who always fielded top teams. That’s how we got it done.”

Tal and Michael raced in the two-man bobsled for Jamaica’s Olympic debut, and came in a respectable 30th out of 41 teams after four runs. Tal then turned his attention to getting in a couple of practice runs in the four-man bobsled, as the race was one a week away. While rehearsing the push and the loading, Caswell fell off the sled and injured his hand bad enough to drop out. Once more, the team had a problem of what to do with one man short.

Tal’s brother Chris happened to be studying for an MBA at Washington State University in Pullman, a nine-hour drive from Calgary. After getting a call from Tal, he headed up to cheer on the team. Chris had been a star sprinter at the University of Idaho and was training for a spot on the Jamaican Olympic track team in Seoul that summer. Aware of Chris’s sprinting talent, Coach Howard proposed that Chris replace Caswell on the team. Even though Chris had never sat in a bobsled before, he suddenly became the only chance the team had to compete.

George again met with Olympic and the Bobsleigh Federation officials, who by now knew him quite well. After a few hours of back and forth, the officials accredited Chris to the Jamaican team and made room for him in the Olympic Village with the others. Chris, who initially had no intention of competing, stepped up to the challenge. In 72 hours and only four practice runs, he learned how to push a bobsled with force and precision and jump in last as the brakeman.

On February 27, the Jamaicans made their first run in the four-man sled, and it went badly, partly due to a technical malfunction of the sled. The second run didn’t go much better, and they landed dead last on the first day of competition. But the team still had two more runs to go the following day and a chance to improve.

Fate was not about to relent. The next morning, Tal woke up with a temperature of 102ºF (39ºC), having caught the Olympic flu. Aching all over, he walked over to inspect the condition of the track, slipped on the ice, and fractured his collarbone. He shook it off and made his way to the top of the course where he and his teammates got the sled ready. First aiders iced Tal’s broken bone and numbed the pain with a spray. Noticeably absent was Coach Howard. With literally minutes to go before the start, George came over with bad news: Coach Howard had called from the airport to say he was heading back to New York for work. That hit Tal hard, but he pulled it together.

Once again, Tal looked down the steep, glistening track before him and briefly meditated to block out the sickness, the pain, the rattling of bells, and the coach gone. He pulled down his goggles, wrapped his fingers around the handlebar extending from the sled, and focused as Devon counted “One, two, three, GO!” The team got off to an excellent start that would turn out to be the seventh fastest at the 1988 Olympics.

The sled sped down the course faster than they had ever gone before, so fast that it put Tal’s steering further and further behind. By the time the sled reached the midway point at the eighth so-called “Kreisel” turn that wound around nearly 360 degrees, Tal began missing the pressure points. The sled went too far up the bank of the ninth curve and began “porpoising,” or bouncing up and down. He lost control and the sled flipped over, crashing into the wall at 85 miles (136 km) an hour.

Tal’s head hit hard against the ice and kept hitting. His life flashed before his eyes where he vividly saw his wife, mother, father, and his brother sitting in the back of the sled. He despaired at the grief his mother would feel if the crash killed both her sons. After 10 seconds, Tal’s brain snapped into survival mode, and he went through the crash drill of trying to protect his head by tucking under the lip of the cowl in front. But the protruding helmet “snout’ prevented him, which also made it harder for the guys behind him to get their heads out of the way. In the effort to cut expenses, the team made due with motorbike racing helmets instead of proper bobsled helmets, and suffered for it.

The team would continue careening down the course with the sled on its side and their heads banging against the wall for another 18 seconds. In what seemed like a crash that would never end, a calm came over Tal.

“There was nothing I could do except watch the ice go by as the sled slid toward the finish line. In those moments of relaxation, it occurred to me that what we were doing was not correct. That there’s a right way to do it, and this could not end here. I went through in my mind what was needed to become top class in bobsledding. We would need to raise the money, market the product, get decent equipment, get more on the ice, travel, coaching.”

  When the sled finally stopped, the battered team got out from under, still able to walk. They righted the sled and pushed it the rest of the way to the end. They did not carry the sled as portrayed in “Cool Runnings,” as that would have made no sense. Spectators still applauded them, but their debut in the four-man bobsled was over and recorded as a DNF (Did Not Finish). Tal blamed himself for not having enough experience driving the four man bobsled. He would never again race a bobsled unprepared.

Making “Cool Runnings”

After the Calgary Olympics, George contacted well-known Hollywood director Michael Ritchie, who had made “Downhill Racer,” about doing a film featuring the Jamaican bobsled team. Intrigued, Ritchie bought the rights from George, William, and the four members on the team and wrote a script about the fanciful quest of the Jamaican bobsled team. He sold it to Disney for $200,000, but nothing came of it.

In early 1991, the president of Columbia Pictures, Dawn Steel, was unceremoniously forced out of her job when Sony bought the company. Over the course of her career at Columbia and Paramount Studios, she had been a key player in several hit movies. Among them, were “When Sally Met Harry,” “Flashdance,” “Fatal Attraction,” and “Top Gun.” Getting dumped from Columbia was a hard blow for Dawn, but she got it together and formed her own production company. Thanks to good contacts, she landed a contract with Disney to see what movies could be made. While reviewing a stack of trash scripts Disney had put aside, she came across Ritchie’s script near the bottom. The story likely resonated because it reflected her own improbable rise from a struggling lower middle class family in New York to the first woman to head a major Hollywood studio. It had that kind of Rocky and Flashdance feel to it—outsiders with outlandish ambitions who overcome obstacles and make it to the big times.

Dawn pitched the renamed script “Cool Runnings” to the senior Disney managers who gave her the nod to produce the movie, but on a tight budget. To learn more, Dawn met with Tal in Calgary where the Olympic dream had begun, asked what happened, and soaked up the story.

Actor John Candy was offered the lead role as the coach and also saw the script’s potential. But the budget was not enough to cover his usual fee, given his star power. So John took a pay cut to get the part. This would be the last movie he would finish before he died in 1994.

When Disney released “Cool Runnings” in 1993, Tal watched the premiere in Jamaica and didn’t like it. The film had portrayed the Jamaican bobsledders as hapless, comical figures. It completely missed how seriously Tal and his teammates took bobsledding and how hard they worked to get to the Olympics, as well as those who had helped them along the way. Indeed, the movie got almost everything wrong.

Among the many wrongs was the scene where an East German bobsledder derides the Jamaicans at a bar and tells them to go back to their tourist island. That never happened. In fact, all the Olympic bobsledders welcomed the Jamaican team and applauded their commitment and efforts. But the movie needed a bad guy, and an East German from a country that had since disappeared made an easy target. The movie ended up grossing more than

$154 million at the box office, the highest ever for a sports comedy.

Tal and the others would get only a tiny share of the net profits, which did not come close to paying off the debts he had incurred in pursuit of the Olympics, a common plight among Olympians.

“‘Cool Runnings’ cast a massive shadow over my life. There’s a very uncomfortable position of actually being alive to watch your legacy unfold. Most people die before their legacy is revealed, but I’ve had to live it.”

The legacy

The popularity of “Cool Runnings” thrust the Jamaican bobsled team to even more worldwide prominence. Ironically, given that much of the movie was fiction, it attracted more sponsors with deep pockets. With money came better coaching, more training time, and improved equipment to compete at the highest level.

Tal’s Olympic career would span ten years and four Winter Olympics, including Albertville in 1992, Lillehammer in 1994, and Nagano in 1998. At each Olympics, the Jamaicans showed they could compete among the best. At Lillehammer, the team came in 14th place overall out of 30 teams, ahead of the United States, Russia, and France. On their fourth run, they clocked the 10th best time overall. Some teams even stopped being friendly, seeing them instead as serious rivals.

After retiring from bobsled racing, Tal went into entrepreneurial ventures with George and William and worked to advance bobsledding in Jamaica. He and Denise had three children, who eventually discovered “Cool Runnings.” (They loved the movie.) Soon after COVID-19 hit and locked down the world for part of 2020, the children, now in their early 20s and isolating in the UK, came up with a creative idea. Why not live-stream “Cool Runnings” and have their dad provide running commentary of the film from his home on Providenciales? It worked, and a lot of people watched. For Tal, the initiative allowed him to see the film from a different point of view. Though for the most part inaccurate, he saw what the Hollywood version was trying to accomplish and came around to accepting it. In so doing, he let go of his misgivings.

Tal’s good friend George, whose persuasive skills saved the team time and again, died of cancer in 2016 at age 66. Like Tal, he was also born into a missionary family, one that had served in China. Tal continues to stay in touch with William, who did get his wish to march in the 1988 Olympics opening ceremony. The two close friends sometimes reminisce about the “old days,” but talk more about future ventures. Dawn, whom Tal came to admire and respect for her own tenacity in reaching the top against the odds, died of a brain tumor in 1997 at age 51. Her signature creation, “Cool Runnings,” has stood the test of time and continues to entertain as much as it did almost 30 years ago.

Today, Tal travels from his TCI home to Europe, North America, and the Caribbean as a sought-after motivational speaker and business management consultant. He is the author of the inspirational book Advice I Should Have Taken, and has written several articles about nutrition and the long-term impact of head injuries.

When meeting Tal, one senses the honest grit, gentle fortitude, and piercing presence of a man who has truly lived and has much to share. He never wanted to be a bobsledder or even thought of being an Olympian. A sharp turn in destiny’s road, however, created a legacy that all humanity can relate to.

But make no mistake, that achievement wasn’t mere chance. It was character and perseverance and talent. It was crossing hurdles and enduring hardships. In making that unlikely journey from a barefoot kid running on the beaches of tropical islands to competitive bobsledder in the Winter Olympics, Tal stirs within an audacious sense of possibilities for anyone with a dream.

For more about Tal’s story, go to dudleystokes.com.

Ben Stubenberg (bluewaterben@gmail.com) is a regular contributing writer to the Times of the Islands and a storyteller about TCI’s compelling history. He is the co-founder of the tour and swim instruction company Caicu Naniki Vacation Adventures and the annual “Race for the Conch” Eco-SeaSwim.



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