Bobsledding is not exactly the first thing anyone would associate with Jamaica, but it’s precisely the unlikeliness of that combination that inspired “Cool Runnings”. The team was a novelty, and then they became a symbol of the Olympic spirit. Then they became a movie. But the four men of the first Jamaican bobsled team, the four men who went to the 1988 Calgary Winter Olympics having hardly seen snow, always wanted one thing.
“We wanted most of all,” said Nelson Chris Stokes, “to compete. We were not jokes. We were athletes who wanted to test ourselves…some people wanted us to be a joke, but those who knew the sport and understood athletics understood how serious we were and what a great accomplishment we had.”
The film celebrates genuine sportsmanship, placing the emphasis back on how the game is played in the face of the winning-is-everything philosophy that permeates every aspect of contemporary life..
“Cool Runnings,” which takes its title from a Jamaican slang expression meaning “peaceful journey”, was inspired by actual events, but director Jon Turteltaub and his several writers have taken liberties so creatively that we’re left with the satisfying feeling that if the story didn’t exactly happen this way it should have. The people who originally conceived the idea of a Jamaican bobsled team were inspired by the islands pushcart racers, and then tried to recruit top track sprinters. However, they did not find any elite sprinters interested in competing, so instead recruited four sprinters from the army for the team. Irving Blitzer is a fictional character; the real team had several trainers, none of whom were connected to any cheating scandal. Arguably, the key moment in the film occurs at a quiet moment when Irv tells Derice that “If you’re not enough without a Gold Medal, you’re not enough with it.”
In brief, tall, handsome, cheerful but absolutely determined track star Derice Bannock (Leon) has every reason to believe he’ll qualify for the Olympics as a sprinter when fellow competitor Junior Bevil (Rawle D. Lewis) accidentally trips him. Derice’s late father, also a track star, had as a friend an American who competed in bobsledding in the 1972 Olympics, and today is a low-life Kingston bookie. Never mind that Derice has never seen a bobsled, let alone snow, or that the bookie, Irv (John Candy), is somewhat less than enthused to serve as a coach, putting together a Jamaican bobsledding team to compete in the Winter Olympics in Calgary in 1988.
Derice and Junior are soon joined by Derice’s pal Sanka Coffee (Doug E. Doug), whose Jamaican-style pushcart will be switched for a sled, and brooding, shaven-headed Yul Brenner (Malik Yoba), the man with a fierce longing to escape Jamaica and its poverty. It was said that although the movie took lots of liberties with the true story–“I had no dreadlocks like Sanka- but the movie’s spirit was very much ours.”
“Sanka, you dead , mon?” “Yeh, mon..”
The sledding really gets tough in Calgary, and not just because the temperature is 25 degrees below zero. For reasons the Jamaicans, who are themselves treated as a joke and even subjected to all-out racism, do not yet know, Irv is greeted with more frost than the weather. “Cool Runnings” abounds with opportunities to cheer the underdog, and we want to see the redemption of the troubled Irv, the man facing his past.
At the Calgary Olympics, the Jamaicans only had British ski jumper “Eddie the Eagle” as rival media novelty, but contrary to the story in the movie, the Jamaican team was met with open arms by the international Bobsledding teams. One of the other teams even lent the Jamaican team a back-up sled so they could qualify. I hope advance apologies were made to the real competing teams involved, as the backstabbing and racism were purely fictional.
However, we are left with the feeling that Turteltaub doesn’t miss a trick in bringing an exceptional script to the screen. In these fortuitous circumstances, not only do the four actors playing Jamaicans emerge as engaging, well-nigh irresistible personalities but also John Candy, in the pivotal role, couldn’t be better in one of the most complex portrayals he ever created. Irv is as sad as he is funny, but he’s also got guts and wit. When the script calls for Irv to stand up and fight for right, Candy is your man to get away with it.
For a light-hearted, frequently hilarious film, “Cool Runnings” touches adroitly on such serious matters as national pride, self-respect and endemic poverty. The actors really did go down the Olympic bobsled track at Calgary’s Olympic Park, pushing the 600-pound sled on its 1,475 metre long course for establishing shots of their race. The filmmakers also used the 16mm film of the actual crash of the Jamaican bobsledders, which they would not re-create (“way too dangerous,”), and blew up to 35mm for the film.
Turteltaub said the gags of the actors breathing vapour, slipping on ice and trying line dancing at a country and Western bar “would have been a one-joke movie” if not for their characterizations. “It could easily be a typical underdog story; a formula sports film . . . except it’s anything but. These are Third World people who are warm, well-rounded, and intelligent with a sense of humour. They might be unsophisticated in terms of world-class athletic competition, but they personify the Olympic spirit.”
Official site of the Jamaican Bobsled team: www.jambob.com/