Everyone enjoying the dog days of summer?
Who doesn’t love a good underdog story? In 1993 we got treated to one of the best in my opinion, Cool Runnings. Inspired by the real-life first Jamaican bobsled team, it’s an enjoyable film about finding unlikely niches.
Derice Bannock (Leon) is a teacher and track runner. He wants to follow in his father’s footsteps and compete in the Olympics. His best friend, Sanka Coffie (Doug E. Doug) is a pushcart champion and is as goofy as Derice is driven. At the Olympic trials in November of 1987, Derice lines up with other hopefuls while his wife, Joy (Bertina Macauley), Sanka, and Sanka’s mom (Pauline Stone Myrie) get set to cheer him on. Instead, they watch in horror as Derice and another guy get accidentally tripped.
Derice goes to see the the president of Jamaica’s Olympics Committee, Mr. Coolidge (Winston Stona) about running the race again. Mr. Coolidge is sympathetic, but there’s nothing he can do. Then Derice spies a photo of his dad on the wall with another guy, and Mr. Coolidge tells him the man is Irving Blitzer. He’s a bobsledder who had a brainstorm about getting track runners to push sleds, but when that didn’t pan out, he moved to Jamaica and became a bookie.
Suddenly, Derice has a revelation. Winter Olympics? Bobsled team? Coach lives in Jamaica? Great!
Only one problem: What’s a bobsled?
Derice goes to the library and gets a book about bobsleds. He’s not hard to convince, but Sanka’s a little tougher to crack, especially once he hears about the ice. Derice has the best friend card on his side, though, so Sanka finally agrees.
Now all they have to do is get Irv Blitzer (John Candy) on board, and they find him at the local pool hall. Irv just happens to be in a particularly sunny mood, as a horse he was betting on lost a race. Derice and Sanka arrive just in time to see Irv smash his radio with a pool stick.
Derice strides up to Irv with Sanka trailing him. He’s feeling confident. Sanka can only manage a “Greetings, Sled God.” Irv makes himself clear right from the start–he doesn’t want to anything to do with bobsledding, or with anyone who does. Derice is nothing if not persistent, though. When he slides over the photo of his dad, Irv starts listening.
The next item on the agenda is to recruit two more members. Derice, Sanka, and Irv host a gathering at the community center, and to a packed house Irv talks about what bobsledding is while Sanka shows newsreels of sledders. Only problem is, most of the footage shows sledders crashing. Irv tries to keep things positive: “Always remember, your bones will not break in a bobsled. No, no. They shatter.”
Shockingly enough, or not, when the lights are back on, the room is empty. All is not lost, though, because two more guys show up, and they just happen to be the ones who hit the dirt with Derice during the Olympic trials. The first introduces himself as Yul Brynner (Malik Yoba), and he’s a tough fella who just wants to leave Jamaica. The other is Junior Bevill (Rawle D. Lewis), the man who tripped Derice and Yul. Yul’s out for a fight, but Derice reminds him that the bobsled team could be his ticket off the island.
Training commences, and Irv’s methods are unorthodox by necessity. Since there are shortages of both bobsleds and snow on Jamaica, Irv slaps together a close substitute, fastened with duct tape, and they find a nice gentle hill. It’s not just learning how to race down it, but how to get into the sled at six seconds flat or less. The guys also have to build up tolerance to cold weather, so they find an ice cream truck and Sanka climbs inside (Don’t try this at home or anywhere else, kids.).
The Jamaican Bobsled Team hits a snag when Mr. Coolidge tells Irv that the Olympic Committee isn’t interested in sponsoring them. It’s nothing personal, just that he doesn’t want Jamaica embarrassed. So the team cooks up all kinds of schemes to get them to Calgary. Sanka sings on the street. Yul holds an arm wrestling tournament. Derice goes around pitching sponsorship to a lot of white-collars around town, all of whom laugh uproariously. He and Sanka also open a kissing booth, which Joy isn’t too jazzed about.
Junior’s got his own set of problems. His dad is a wee bit overbearing, and sees his son as a lost little boy. He even gets him a job with a Miami brokerage house, and he thinks Junior has nothing to do but pack his bags. Well, it’s not quite that simple. Junior’s new job gives him a great excuse to sell his car, and bam! The team is off to Calgary.
These island dwellers have no idea what to expect when they get there. Just leaving the Calgary airport knocks them silly, as none of them have ever been in snowy weather. Irv breezily goes around in a wool coat, but the other men have to pile on the padding.
That’s not the only bit of culture shock that’s in store for our heroes. When they get to the Olympic facilities, the more seasoned teams act like the Jamaicans are from another planet. The powers-that-be aren’t any more hospitable. Among other obstacles, the team’s qualifying time is shortened to the bare bones count of a minute and five seconds. Then a minute flat.
The guys have to step up their game in a lot of ways during their time in Calgary. Not only are they training and performing in an environment that none of them are familiar with, but they have to deal with who they are as people. It’s overwhelming enough to make them forget where they’re from, and the big question is what they’ll be like when they come out on the other side.
Jamaica still has a bobsled team. Several, actually. Since 1988, they have sent two-man and four-man teams to the Olympics, and one of the four original sledders, Dudley Stokes, now coaches the women’s bobsled team, which competed in the 2018 Winter Olympics. Around that time, the Today Show ran an interview with the other three which separates fact from fiction nicely. Suffice it to say, Disney and the filmmakers nailed the movie, even if a few details did have to be changed:
One of the great things about Cool Runnings is that the film is realistic about what the men go through. They don’t chortle and pratfall their way through their hardships. On the other hand, though, it doesn’t ever let itself sink into despair. I think that’s what people, including me, love about this story. Cool Runnings is one of the the few films that I’ve seen in the theater where literally everyone laughed at the same time, and everyone walked out smiling. It’s a straight-ahead fun movie, it’s inspirational, and it’s going to be a classic if it isn’t one already.
Still too hot for ya? Check in with Debbie at Moon In Gemini for more of the Winter In July Blogathon. Thanks for hosting, Debra–this was a great idea! And of course, thanks for reading, all! See you next time!
This film is available on Amazon.