Cool Runnings: Where fiction proved better and funnier than fact

‘Feel the rhythm, Feel the ride. Get on up, it’s bobsleigh time’ may not have happened

While quite an amount of licence was used with the actual events - Cool Runnings has itself stood the test of time. Photograph: Disney

While quite an amount of licence was used with the actual events - Cool Runnings has itself stood the test of time. Photograph: Disney

 

First things first. Don’t take Cool Runnings too seriously. Enjoy it for what it is, a sporting romp - loosely based on fact, as in Jamaica actually did send a bobsleigh team to the Winter Olympics in Calgary in 1988 - with the film providing a rollicking, fun-filled ride, but more frequently with the captivating laidback vibe of the Caribbean island than the breakneck speed of the gravity induced race down narrow, twisted ice-banked tracks in a discipline traditionally dominated by the Swiss and the Germans.

Oh sure, the crux of the storyline is all about the bobsleighing (or bobsleding if you will) and Jamaica’s improbable quest for glory in the four-man team. But fact and fiction don’t always reflect each other and a kind of poetic licence has been taken throughout to provide for a feel-good factor, which is no harm at all.

Indeed, the film was originally envisaged to be of a rather more serious bent until the comedic side of it ran away much akin to an out-of-control bobsleigh. Again, no harm at all.

The genesis for Cool Runnings came from Jamaica, more renowned for its historically powerful sprinting tradition in the Summer Olympics, entering bobsleigh teams (two-man and four-man) into the ‘88 Calgary Winter Games although the film itself centres exclusively on the four-man team event.

Jamaica actually did send a bobsleigh team to the Winter Olympics in Calgary in 1988. Photograph: Disney
Jamaica actually did send a bobsleigh team to the Winter Olympics in Calgary in 1988. Photograph: Disney

In the world of fact, the four-man Jamaica bobsleigh team was made up of members of the country’s Air Force. Those who first conceived the idea of entering a Jamaican team had originally approached some of the country’s leading track sprinters but instead found their recruits in the military.

In the movie, the team is comprised of three athletes who had come to grief at the Jamaican sprint trials (one falling and bringing down the other two) and another recruited as the country’s best pushcart racer. The fall at the sprint trial starts the comedic theme that works so well throughout and which led to the film becoming such a success at the box office globally.

The four central team characters - Leon Robinson as Derice Bannock, Doug E Doug as Sanka Coffie, Rawle D Lewis as Junior Bevil and Malik Yoba as Yul Brenner - are coached by John Candy, in one of his last movies before his untimely death from a heart attack, who brilliantly plays the role of Irving “Irv” Blitzer.

In the movie Blitzer is a washed-up former US Olympic bobsleigh gold medal winner who left the sport in disgrace after a cheating scandal. In reality, the official team had a number of coaches who had no connections with any such scandal.

Push start

Admittedly Candy (who pushed for the role after hearing Kurt Russell was being lined up to play Blitzer) provides some great lines. On first assessing his motley crew, he outlines the requisite for success: “Winning a bobsled race is about one thing, the push-start. Now I know you dainty, little track-stars think you’re fast. Well, heh, let’s see how fast you are when you push a 600lb sled. Now a respectable start time is 5.7 seconds. If you speed demons can’t whip off an even six flat, you have a better chance of becoming a barbershop quartet.”

Lewis, who played the role of Bevil (the faller in the sprint trial), had very little experience of acting and in fact was originally hired by the film production team to assist with auditioning actors in developing authentic Jamaican accents. “I was hired to read lines to auditioning actors for just one day. That turned into three weeks.

At first they told me they were looking for names, big stars, so I wouldn’t be considered, but then they asked me to do a screen test,” revealed Lewis. To facilitate production, the film was made in reverse: the Winter Olympic scenes in Calgary, Alberta, were actually filmed first before the unit rebased in the Jamaican sunshine.

The film centres around Jamaica’s history-making appearance in those ‘88 Games and plays out as if they ditched their underdogs tag to emerge as major contenders. That is at some odds with actual happenings on the ground at the Winter Olympics: Jamaica’s four-man sled team were 24th (of 26 teams) after the first run, were slower again in their second run and crashed on the third run (to be 26th and last) and were unable to complete the fourth scheduled run due to damage to the bobsleigh.

Fiction proved better than fact in this case. In Cool Runnings, the Jamaican team arrive to the cold weather as something of oddities who must buy a second-hand sled in order to race (in actual fact, at the real Games they were given one of the USA team’s back-ups) and who are initially disqualified before ever getting to the start because of Blitzer’s past misdemeanours

After being reinstated on appeal, the Jamaicans go about the task of qualifying and racing with team leader and driver Bannock seemingly obsessed with copying the Swiss techniques. After a disastrous first run, the Jamaicans’ problems are exacerbated in a scene (fictional) in which they are drawn into a fight in a bar with the East German team.

It is after the bar scenes that we get a rare serious moment as Blitzer (Candy) comes down hardball on his team: “You choked, it was yours for the taking and you choked. You were ready and you choked . . . I’ll tell you something, you had all better figure out how to stay loose out there. That’s something I can’t help you with.

“I’ll see you tomorrow on the hill,” says Blitzer with all the feeling of your typical hurling manager rallying the troops in a dressing room dressing down.

Except, this scene is delivered in a hotel bedroom to his team. The reaction of Bannock is to again extol the virtues of the Swiss to which Sanka responds: “Will you shut up about the Swiss. It was all that eins, zwei, drei, vier that got us here in the first place . . . if we look Jamaican, walk Jamaican, talk Jamaican and is Jamaica then we sure as hell better bobsleigh Jamaica.”

For the following day’s second run, the Jamaican team is transformed and make a colourful arrival to the hill for the start of the second run.

“Feel the rhythm, Feel the ride. Get on up, it’s bobsleigh time . . . Cool Runnings.”

Lo and behold, would you believe it, Jamaica perform like the Swiss. Where they had struggled to get into the sleigh on the first run, they produce the fastest start and produce the fastest run to leapfrog into medal contention (all fiction of course).

“Feel the rhythm, Feel the ride. Get on up, it’s bobsleigh time . . . Cool Runnings.” Photograph: Disney
“Feel the rhythm, Feel the ride. Get on up, it’s bobsleigh time . . . Cool Runnings.” Photograph: Disney

Although the crash in real life occurred in the third of four runs at the Games, the film depicts the third run as the final one.

For the crash scenes in the film, real television footage of the actual crash was used. While driver inexperience was widely believed to cause the incident in the Calgary Games, the film implies that a mechanical fault in the second-hand sleigh was the reason. The sleigh was reputedly travelling at speeds of 130km per hour when it tipped over and it was estimated that the members’ helmets scraped against the ice wall for 600 metres before coming to a stop.

In the Games, the four team members emerged uninjured and walked alongside the sleigh to the finish, while the movie depicts them emerging and then carrying the sleigh on their shoulders to wild acclaim from the spectators.

In a fact is stranger than fiction kind of way, it should be noted that it is not just Caribbean sunshine states who have eyed potential Winter Olympic glory: in the 2002 Games at Salt Lake City, Clifton Hugh Lancelot de Verdon Wrottesley, 14th Baronet, 6th Baron Wrottesley competed for Ireland in the skeleton discipline and actually came within touching distance of a medal, ultimately finishing in fourth place. Now, that too, you’d think, would have had the genesis of movie.

Anyway, Cool Runnings - released in 1994 - has itself stood the test of time and, while quite an amount of licence was used with the actual events, it is much better for all of that.

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