63: Cool Runnings

Jamaica we have a bobsled team! Every sports fan loves the story of an underdog’s rise to success. Disney’s Cool Runnings is that and more. But is it historically accurate? That’s what we aim to discover on this week’s episode.

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Episode Transcript

Disney’s National Treasure, National Treasure: Book of Secrets and The Sorcerer’s Apprentice are more than fun adventure movies starring the one and only Nicholas Cage. They’re also all movies directed by John Turteltaub.

John’s connection to Disney goes back beyond his days working with Nick Cage. There was 2000’s The Kid which saw Bruce Willis playing the lead role in a feel-good family film. Or there was 1996’s sad and yet what many would consider yet another feel-good film, Phenomenon, with John Travolta.

In addition to these feel-good films, John also directed classics such as 1995’s rom-com While You Were Sleeping and even 1992’s 3 Ninjas. All of those were produced by Disney-owned Buena Vista Pictures.

Sandwiched between his work on 3 Ninjas and While You Were Sleeping, Disney spent $15 million dollars on yet another feel-good John Turteltaub film.

When Cool Runnings was released in 1994, it didn’t take long for it to win over fans on its way to making almost $70 million at the box office.

No doubt that success at the box office and beyond helped cement the inspirational story in Cool Runnings of underdogs overcoming incredible odds into all of our minds. It’s something that everyone loves, especially in sports movies. But is it true?

The true story behind Cool Runnings

The movie begins by introducing us to one of the main characters, Derice Bannock, who’s played by Leon Robinson—or just Leon as he’s known professionally. In the movie, Derice is the son of an Olympic runner from Jamaica named Ben Bannock, and Derice has dreams of continuing the family’s legacy at the world’s top athletic stage.

After this brief introduction, we find out who the other members of the team will be. First is Sanka Coffie, who’s played by Doug E. Doug, followed by Junior Bevil and Yul Brenner. The character of Junior is played by Rawle D. Lewis while the character of Yul Brenner is played by Malik Yoba.

As we see in a lot of movies, we’re hit with our first fiction in the film. Ben Bannock, Derice Bannock, Sanka Coffie, Junior Bevil and Yul Brenner are all fictional people made up for the film.

Well, sort of.

Sanka is the brand of a decaffeinated instant coffee that’s part of the Kraft Foods brand. So it’s not a person, but Doug E. Doug’s character is spelled Sanka Coffie, with an “ie” instead of “ee” in Coffee. But the brand—sorry, first name—is spelled the same.

Speaking of spelling, Malik Yoba’s character is Yul Brenner.

While he’s a fictional character in Cool Runnings, there really was a person named Yul Brynner with a “y” instead of an “e”. If that name doesn’t ring a bell, you’d probably recognize him if you saw him.

He was the King of Siam in The King and I, a role he portrayed thousands of times on stage for the musical as well. He was also Rameses opposite Charlton Heston in Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments and Chris in The Magnificent Seven.

As a little side note, Yul Brynner’s character in the original western The Magnificent Seven was played by Denzel Washington in the 2016 remake.

Needless to say, Yul Brynner was one of the leading men in Hollywood for decades.

So while I don’t have any insight into why Cool Runnings writers Lynn Siefert, Michael Ritchie, Tommy Swerdlow and Michael Goldberg came up with the characters’ names, I’d really like to think they were in the writer’s room watching Yul Brynner The Ten Commandments and drinking Sanka instant coffee when they came up with the names.

I highly doubt that’s what happened, but it’s a fun visual to imagine.

Although, in a 2013 AMA (Ask Me Anything) on Reddit, Cool Runnings writer Tommy Swerdlow admitted he wrote it while he was on heroin. So maybe it wasn’t Sanka instant coffee in the writer’s room.

Back in the movie, after Derice and Yul have their dreams of going to the Olympics crashed when they’re tripped up by Junior, the three unexpectedly decide to become teammates along with Derice’s good friend Sanka so they can still become Olympians. Except they won’t make the Summer Olympics, so they decide to try to make the Winter Olympics as bobsledders—a sport none of them know anything about.

The final member of the Jamaican bobsledding team is John Candy’s character, Irv Blitzer. According to the movie, Irv is a former bobsledding Olympic gold medalist who just happens to be living in Jamaica as he tries to drown his past life in liquor and gambling.

As you can probably guess, Irv is also a fictional character, as is pretty much this entire setup.

So with all of these fictional characters and this elaborate storyline, that begs the question…who were the real people and what is the real setup for the Jamaican bobsled team?

If there’s someone who John Candy’s character of Irv is likely based on, it’s probably a man named Howard Siler. Although the real Howard isn’t much like the drunken Irv we saw on screen. Howard Siler was a five-time U.S. champion, an Olympian who participated in the 1972 and 1980 games, and a coach with the U.S. bobsled team.

Sure, his name wasn’t used, but since Howard Siler was the very first coach of the Jamaican bobsledding team, it’s fairly obvious who the fictitious Irv Blitzer was based upon.

In an interview after Cool Runnings came out, Howard said that it was a good movie with a couple things that were true. But most of it wasn’t true.

Howard went on to explain that unlike Irv in the movie, he never won two gold medals in the Olympics and, perhaps more importantly, he wasn’t an alcoholic in Jamaica who just happened to be on the island.

So how did Howard make it onto the island? As anti-climactic as it may seem, Howard came to Jamaica because he was hired to be the first coach for the Jamaican bobsled team.

He was hired by two American businessmen named George Finch and William Maloney. Together, those men came up with the idea for a Jamaican bobsled team. Both of these men were living in Jamaica at the time and at one point they saw a pushcart race. That’s the sport we saw Doug E. Doug’s character, Sanka Coffie, doing in the beginning of the movie.

George and William had the idea that with an abundance of great track runners in Jamaica, they could easily transfer over to bobsledding and were determined to fund the venture.

So there are some similarities between the spirit of the film and the true story there.

Although interestingly, in an article on ESPN, George Finch recalled talking to John Candy as he was prepping for his role. According to that article, John was talking to George because he was playing George’s role in the film.

According to George:

“When John Candy spoke to me, he said, ‘Whoah, I’m playing a completely different role!’ I was personally offended by the film because I’m not a disgraced Olympic bobsledder who’s a drunk, who’s spending the rest of my life in some pool hall. But that’s Hollywood.”

Since the movie shows that it was the track stars turned bobsledders themselves who had the idea to try bobsledding and Irv was the coach they asked to help train them, it’d seem that Irv Blitzer is more of a composite role, with bits of Howard Siler, George Fitch and William Maloney.

Except it wasn’t the athletes themselves who had the idea for the team. It was George and William, and the real George and William couldn’t convince any track runners to make the change to bobsledding. So it wasn’t runners who failed to make it to the Summer Olympics because they fell during the trials like we saw in the movie. Instead, when George and William couldn’t get any volunteers, they went to the Jamaican armed forces to find athletes.

One of the real members of the original Jamaican bobsledding team, Dudley Stokes, recalled this in another AMA on Reddit:

I got into bobsledding because I was told to go. I was in the Army at the time. The Colonel made the suggestion to me and because I was a Captain, you do as your told and obey orders.
There were two Americans, George Finch and William Maloney who were big into push cart racing and thought it translated well to bobsledding. You mix that with the Jamaican athleticism and they thought it could work with some of our track athletes.
They couldn’t get anyone to actually do the sport, so they went to the Army and my Colonel. So that’s how I became involved in it. Once there, I was hooked.
That’s from Dudley Stokes, or “Tal” as was his nickname. If the characters in the movie were real, Leon’s character of Derice Bannock probably would’ve been who Dudley was modeled after because, simply, Dudley “Tal” Stokes was the real driver of the first Jamaican bobsled team.

Oh, and as a quick side note, the term “bobsled” is more commonly used in the United States while the term “bobsleigh” is used internationally. So even though there’s not much about this story that happens inside the United States, simply because I’m from the U.S., that’s why I keep referring to it as a bobsled.

Anyway, along with Dudley Stokes, the real bobsled team for Jamaica in the 1988 Calgary Olympics were Devon Harris, Michael White and Freddy Powell.

Dudley’s brother, Chris, would join the team last-minute and without even being inside of a bobsled prior to joining the team. He joined because of an injury to one of the other bobsledders.

As a little side note, there’s another movie that Hollywood has made based on events in the 1988 Calgary Olympics. While the Jamaican bobsled team was competing, across the games an underdog skier named Eddie Edwards represented his home country of Great Britain. His story was brought to the silver screen with Taron Egerton and Hugh Jackman in 2016’s Eddie the Eagle.

But that’s another story for another day.

Back in Cool Runnings, after we’re introduced to the major players in the film, there’s another major plot point when the character of Coolidge refuses to support the team. Coolidge, who’s played by Winston Stona, is the character who’s portrayed as Jamaica’s Olympic representative.

By that, I don’t mean he’s from the Olympic committee—we never really find out—but he’s the one who Derice tries to convince to send them to the Olympics. So the implication there is that Coolidge is the one who determines who comes and who goes to the Olympics from Jamaica.

Like the other characters, Coolidge isn’t a real person, but this point in the film is to imply that the Jamaican team has to find the money to go to the Olympics themselves.

After being rejected by Coolidge, another one of the other major plot points happens when Junior sells his car to afford sending the Jamaican team to the Olympics.

All of that is made up. In truth, it was George Finch and William Maloney who sponsored the team. Since both George and William were rather well off, money didn’t seem to be much of an issue for the Jamaican team.

Although it’s worth pointing out that despite not wanting for money, that doesn’t necessarily mean they were well-prepared for their trip to the Winter Olympics. The Jamaican team did have to borrow some equipment to be able to compete.

In the movie, after determining that they’re actually able to go to the Olympics, it’s time to train. This is done in two parts. The first part is in Jamaica, where we see John Candy as a coach urging along the clumsy Jamaicans in their push carts. Then the second part of training takes place in Calgary, where the Jamaicans are introduced to snow and ice for the first time.

While the specific scenes were made up, the spirit of the story is…well, sort of true. The Jamaican team certainly weren’t the bumbling athletes the movie makes it seem, but I guess that’s how things get played up for comedic effect.

The truth is that while the Jamaican team’s head coach may have been the American Howard Siler, it wasn’t like he was the only one helping to train the Jamaican bobsledders. There were other coaches from the U.S. and Austria to help train the team.

Probably the most realistic thing in the movie was that there’s not a lot of snow and ice in Jamaica, so the coaches from the U.S. and Austria took the Jamaican team to—you guessed it—the U.S. and Austria to train. More specifically in the U.S., Lake Placid, New York.

OK that’s a little obvious, so maybe the weather in Jamaica doesn’t count as the most realistic moment in the movie.

Oh, and in the movie there’s a scene where the four athletes arrive at the Calgary airport and hesitate going outside. John Candy walks outside in blustering cold and blowing snow, and the camera comedically pans back to show the four Jamaicans huddled together for warmth as they refuse to go outside into the cold.

That was played up quite a bit for comedic effect, but Coach Howard Siler recalled that that scene was the most realistic scene in the movie. As if bobsledding wasn’t new enough of an experience for them, getting used to the cold itself was another element they had to tackle.

While they’re training, there’s a few major plot points that come to light in the film. One of those is that John Candy’s character, Irv, apparently cheated and had his gold medals removed by the Olympic committee.

That never happened. The Jamaican’s real coach, Howard Siler, never cheated like Irv Blitzer did in the film. And as we already learned, he also never won gold medals at the Olympics.

Another major plot point is through numerous scenes when we see the Jamaican bobsledders getting ridiculed by other teams. In particular, the Swiss team likes to mock the bumbling Jamaicans. As we already learned, there was a lot of added clumsiness added for comedic effect.

When the Jamaicans showed up in Calgary for the Winter Olympics with a bobsled team, it’s very likely that no one took them seriously at first. However, we don’t really have any evidence of anything that happened in the movie, especially the mocking coming from the Swiss team.

In truth, the other bobsledders loved the fact that the Jamaicans were competing. One of the teams even offered to give the Jamaicans a backup sled just so they could qualify for the Olympics.

According to the movie, there’s a bit of athletic heroism when the Jamaicans just barely manage to beat the time they need in their qualifying run. While the specifics were made up, the spirit of the story is fairly accurate here. The Jamaicans did qualify and compete.

In the movie, in their first run, the Jamaican team has a horrible time. Then they make a comeback and everyone starts to cheer them on as they have a great run in their second go-round.

All of that is made up.

In fact, while the movie never shows this, the Jamaican’s first bobsled run wasn’t even in a four-man sled. It was Dudley Stokes and Michael White who teamed up in a two-man sled and ended up placing 34th out of 41 total teams. Not amazing, but considering this was the very first time Jamaica had ever been represented in a Winter Games, that’s not too bad.

On their second run, the two-man team saw improvement. They finished 22nd. Then they declined a little on their final two runs as they came in 31st and 30th on their third and fourth runs.

So while the movie never shows the two-man runs, in the end the Jamaicans ended up finishing 30th overall after their four runs in the two-man event.

In the movie, we see three runs on the four-man event.

After their two-man runs, the world watched to see how the Jamaicans would do in the four-man event.

And just like we saw in the movie, their first run in the four-man event wasn’t very good. They finished 24th out of 26th and even had part of their bobsled broke off when Dudley jumped in at the start.

In the movie we see pieces of the bobsled come apart on their third run, eventually causing a dramatic crash.

While that was heavily changed in the movie, the spirit of what happened is actually quite true.

It wasn’t because of any broken parts—the piece that broke off in the second run had no effect—but during one of the bends the sled tipped over. While the movie makes it seem like it was because of a broken sled, most believe it was due to driver error that caused the sled to tip. Still, the team was traveling about 80 mph when they tipped. That’s about 130 kilometers per hour.

The movie does a great job of showing this because as it cuts to the Jamaican fans back in their home country watching the event on TV, they’re watching what appears to be realistic looking footage. That’s realistic because the filmmakers in Cool Runnings interspliced a lot of real footage of the actual crash of the Jamaican team’s sled in 1988.

Because they were traveling so fast, the sled took almost 2,000 feet before it came to a stop. That’s about 600 meters.

In the movie, after realizing there were no serious injuries, the crowd starts a very Hollywood-esque slow crescendo of applause as the four bobsledders hoist their sled and finish the race on foot.

In truth, the crowd’s response was not what we saw in the film, but there was some applause in the crowd after everyone realized there were indeed no major injuries.

But despite this, the Jamaican team didn’t lift up the sled and carry it to the finish. Instead they walked alongside it as it was pushed to the end. In fact, you can see footage of this run, the crash and their walk to the finish in archival footage on YouTube. I’ll make sure to put a link to that in the show notes.

As the movie comes to a close, there’s text on the screen that says Derice, Sanka, Junior and Yul returned to Jamaica as heroes. Then, four years later, they returned to the Olympics as equals. It’s a very fitting ending for a fun movie.

But is it true?

Well, sort of. It’s not really true that those four returned because, as we learned earlier, Derice, Sanka, Junior and Yul were all made up people.

The rest of that is true. The mere fact that Disney was inspired to turn their story into a movie is telling of how impactful the first Jamaican bobsled team was on the history of sports.

Just like the movie says, the Jamaican team returned to the Winter Olympics four years after Calgary in 1988. Since joining the Olympics in 1988, there’s only been two times the team failed to qualify, 2006 and 2010.

That would make it their second appearance the 1992 Olympics. And they returned again in 1994, 1998, 2002 and most recently the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi.

Each time the Jamaicans compete, the loveable story in Cool Runnings comes to the forefront and the efforts of those first bobsledders for the Jamaican team in 1988 comes to the public eye.

After the 2014 Olympics, one of the original members of the 1988 bobsled team, Devon Harris, took over the Jamaican national bobsled program.

As of this recording, the next Winter Games are in the January of 2018 and will be hosted by South Korea in Pyeongchang. According to an interview with ESPN, Devon said he’s hoping Jamaica will have their biggest representation to date. As he explained:

“For the Pyeongchang Games in 2018, we’re hoping to have one of the biggest teams we have had in a long time. We’re hoping to have a two-man team, a two-woman team, a four-man team and at least one male skeleton team qualifying and representing Jamaica.”

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