As a teenager in southeastern Virginia in the 1990s, I came to expect something odd when I met strangers: a chant. If I told someone that my mother was Jamaican, he or she often responded with “Feel the rhythm, feel the rhyme, get on up, it’s bobsled time.” It was the starting-gun exhortation from the Jamaican Olympic bobsled team in “Cool Runnings.” And while it was irritating to know that a hapless-if-determined fictional crew of failed sprinters defined my mom’s country in the popular eye, I was still proud of Jamaica. It was an uplifting story that had a prominent place in the island’s estimable Olympic history.
I watched it again recently. This year’s Winter Olympics marks the 30th anniversary of the Jamaican bobsled team’s debut in the two-man and four-man events at the 1988 Calgary Games — and the 25th anniversary of Jon Turteltaub’s film loosely based on those competitors. The movie, about tropical athletes who see snow for the first time just days before they compete on ice, made Jamaican bobsledders a cultural phenomenon.
Unfortunately, it does not hold up very well. It inspires more cringing than pride.
“Cool Runnings” is a kids’ movie, so its priorities are bright colors, simplistic characterizations of peoples and places, and comedy and bad accents. That’s fine for an animated film, but it’s a problem for a film that mines comedy from the juxtaposition of black athletes and winter sports. The film steers clear of the biggest problem by emphasizing the quartet’s nationality: They’re not funny because they’re black men on ice, but because they’re Jamaicans walking on ice for the first time.
Yet playing nationality for laughs is still a problem. The movie isn’t interested in expanding viewers’ imaginations about what being Jamaican might mean, so it falls back onto familiar signifiers: colorful outfits, reggae, market women, accents and phrases like “yeah, mon.” These characterizations aren’t all stereotypes. But many are bundled together in the cartoonish character of “Sanka Coffie,” played by Doug E. Doug. Sanka is loud, laid-back and the jester of the group. There are brief allusions to the fact that he’s Rastafarian, but there’s never any serious discussion of his religious practice. Instead, his sole character trait is “being Jamaican.” He is the film’s embodiment of essentialized notions of Jamaicanness.
We see this most in Sanka’s only serious moment. After the team’s poor first qualifying run, Sanka accuses main character, Derice Bannock, of losing his identity as he tries to imitate their Swiss rivals’ preparations. “If we look Jamaican, walk Jamaican, talk Jamaican and is Jamaican, then we sure as hell better bobsled Jamaican.” What this means, apparently, is for the athletes to arrive for competition the next day dancing and singing “Jamaica, we have a bobsled team!” They also adopt “feel the rhythm” as their pre-start hype chant. Being Jamaican, for them, means stressing less, smiling more and becoming more musical and lyrical — traits often deployed in racist tropes about black and Caribbean people in particular.
The movie also flirts uncomfortably with white-savior themes. After Derice fails to qualify for the Summer Olympics, he is forced to rely on John Candy’s Irving Blitzer, a disgraced U.S. gold-medal winning bobsledder. Only Blitzer, living out his days as a gambling barfly, has the knowledge to take the novices to Calgary in mere months, and at first he’s not interested. “You don’t have me,” he tells Derice, and it’s clear that without him, Derice’s dream has no chance. It’s true, though, that this white-savior narrative is more complicated than the usual kind: Ultimately, it is Derice who single-mindedly pursues the idea, who builds a team, and whose perseverance is classic plotting for a sports movie. Even though the Jamaican quartet isn’t in the room when the all-white board permits them to compete in the Olympics, the four competitors seem to have saved Blitzer. (This itself is a play on yet another unsavory trope.)
As in many films, the script does not depict history very accurately. Perhaps “Cool Runnings” treads on uncomfortable territory because the story itself has unnerving origins. As told by U.S. businessman and politician George Fitch, the idea emerged from a drinking session in which he and a compatriot settled on bobsledding as the winter sport where Jamaicans would most likely succeed. Also inspired by seeing a pushcart derby, a kind of Jamaican road race that looked marginally like bobsledding, Fitch called a friend in the Jamaica Defense Force, who sent some members of the army to tryouts. It was also Fitch who recruited Howard Siler, a U.S. bobsledding coach, to train the Jamaicans.
“Cool Runnings” doesn’t tell this story, and the tweak partially redeems the film. Rather than coming to life as the result of a drunken challenge, bobsledding is a dream abandoned by an American but made real by a Jamaican. The film also celebrated and honored Jamaica’s rich sprinting legacy, as three of the bobsledders in the movie are actually track stars. In the 1990s, Jamaican athletes weren’t international names in the way some became after the rise of Usain Bolt, but it was the nation of gifted sprinters Arthur Wint, Donald Quarrie and Merlene Ottey. “Cool Runnings” also popularized the idea that speed could translate to other sports. According to the Sports on Earth short documentary “Breaking the Ice: The True Story of the ’88 Jamaican Bobsled Team,” the five Jamaicans who went to Calgary (Dudley Stokes, Michael White, Freddy Powell, Devon Harris and Chris Stokes) ultimately transformed the sport. Track athletes are now frequently members of bobsled teams. Indeed, this trend helps explain the increasing diversity of Winter Olympics athletes. Finally, “Cool Runnings” deserves some credit for avoiding the most ugly pigeonholes: “Relief was my first reaction,” Harris told Inside Edition last week, “because there was concern about stereotypes of Jamaica, like smoking weed, and none of my team has ever smoked weed.”
In the PyeongChang Games, Jazmine Fenlator-Victorian and Carrie Russell will become the first women to compete for Jamaica in bobsled. No matter how they do, they too will add to the island’s rich bobsledding legacy. But when the time comes to tell their stories, Jamaicans — who are better attuned to the richness and diversity of Jamaican cultural life — should be involved. There are already models for this in the novels of Marlon James and the academic work of literary scholars Carolyn Cooper and Nadia Ellis and anthropologist Deborah Thomas. Ultimately this was the greatest failure of “Cool Runnings”: Experts in the country were not instrumental in making it. Even in a kids’ comedy, the country of my ancestors deserves more.