In 1988, Jamaica put forward an unlikely contender for the Winter Olympics in Calgary – a four-man bobsledding team. Before even stepping out onto the ice, the Jamaican bobsled team faced seemingly insurmountable hurdles. Speaking with Devon Harris, one of the team’s founding members, we discuss the lessons found in the struggle, the glory found in confronting one’s fears, and naturally, the movie that brought this story to life.
FEAR & GLORY
I am scared of speed and heights.
These are not the words you would expect to hear from a three-time bobsled Olympian. Laughing to himself, the irony of this remark is not lost on Harris. The former Olympian, reflecting on his memories of the sport admits that beyond the physical stress of training in sub-zero conditions, fear was his biggest opponent.”I remember getting in the sled for the first time in Calgary and being scared to death. Crawling in next to a guy who had never even driven one, you don’t know what to expect so I just said, ‘If I die I die’. I just resigned myself, there was no way I was going to come this far and not do it.” Looking retrospectively at his life and personal journey, Harris reflects on the insurmountable odds that led him to the ice luges of Calgary.
Devon Harris (Pilot) and Ricky McIntosh(brakeman) competing during the 1992 Olympics in La Plagne
PLAYING THE ODDS
Your biography is not your destiny but your decisions are.
Born and raised in the slums of Kingston Jamaica, Harris was constantly confronted with the inescapable challenges imposed by socio-economic poverty. Many of his peers were simply lost; victims to their circumstance and accepting of their fate. Growing up within this reality, Harris reflects, “I think the guys I grew up with just looked around, accepted their environment, and saw no way out. It’s easier to accept that as your destiny but I felt the weight of it.”
Recalling early memories of his childhood, Harris remembers evenings spent, leaning against a lamppost outside his childhood home, looking out at the affluent Forest Hills neighbourhood. It was in these moments of solitude, he would imagine a life beyond the poverty that surrounded him, and yearn for a way out of his present circumstance. The former Olympian recounts his childhood, “it was a really tough neighbourhood. You learn very quickly in those environments to be tough, to be persistent and to understand that you can’t achieve success overnight”.
THE SPARK OF AN IDEA
By holding his vision of the future, Harris was granted a window of opportunity in the form of an unexpected offer. As a young officer, he turned his attention back to the Olympic dream and started to train. He recalls, ‘At the time I was dreaming about competing at the events in 1988, thinking that if I did what I knew best, which was just to run, I would get fit enough to go to the Olympic Games. I know now that was not really enough but provenance stepped in, these two crazy Americans came up with an idea to make a bobsled team and I tried out and here we are.’ Recognising his speed and athleticism learned on the track, George Fitch and William Moloney signed Harris’ up as one of the four founding members of Jamaica’s first bobsled team.
“Whilst common sense and contemporary knowledge would say that it’s impossible, you start creating these images in your head and you start to find a way,” admits Harris.
(Left- Training in Kingston, Jamaica, October 1987)
AN UNLIKELY TEAM
“The reaction in Jamaica was perhaps slow because most people don’t know what the hell bobsledding was. Interestingly enough, when our team got selected, and people heard that Jamaica was starting a bobsled team, their first reactions were that it was perhaps the most ridiculous idea conceived by man. I honestly remember I was talking to my fellow officers and I was saying ‘Nobody could ever get me to go on one of those things’.
We were away from Jamaica when word spread and what I can say is Jamaica is definitely proud of having a bobsled team, it is such an unusual thing. We think we are the best at whatever we do. Only a Jamaican would think of doing bobsledding in a hot country. In terms of the bobsledding world, I think it took them by surprise, and obviously, we weren’t as good as they were although we thought we were.”
I am like a wild animal running and the moment that I leap from the ice, I transform. Big eyes, focussed, because it’s time to drive.
When the sport of bobsledding was introduced in 1932, competing bobsled teams were nicknamed ‘The Suicide Club’ by Damon Runyon. The first bobsled teams were made up of ex-movie stars, daredevils and first World War fighters. Whilst the techniques have evolved since the early days of racers roaring down the mountainsides of Lake Placid, the speed of the runs have surpassed the 100mph mark. Starting the run with a breakneck sprint, they negotiate the track with wide-focussed eyes and fatal precision, counting each corner and welding with the shape of the track. Whilst the action is played out on the ice, the hard work takes place in the racer’s mind.
“I started visualising when I was running in high school, but I didn’t call it that back then. I learned that word in bobsledding. When you go into the warm house, where all the bobsled drivers go before a race, you see these guys going through the process of driving the track. I was probably the only brake man in the world who would sit in the warm house visualising but that’s the thing that really got me over the hump, visualising a good ending. Visualising me pushing the sled, counting the corners and crossing the finish line.”
“Bobsledding is a lot about feeling”, observes Harris. Everything in a Bobsled line-up is determined on the synchronicity between all team members. “You feel how the driver is doing based on the feeling. If you are in the back, you just count the corners until you cross the finish line. It’s 55 seconds. If you get lost on the track, it can feel like a really long run”.
Running with one’s instincts in a sport known for its breakneck speeds, and where the life and death rests on a knife’s edge, Harris observes, ” One thing people don’t realise about bobsled is that they are aggressive, like how a rugby player can be aggressive or a wrestler. You need that energy to move the sled really fast in that 20 metres”. As a driver, Harris reflects, his focus becomes razor sharp and the moment he leaps from the ice, “I transform”.
THE FINISH LINE
We are designed for continuous growth. It’s a destination not a journey.
In their 1988 Debut at Calgary, the Jamaican Bobsled Team were off to a phenomenal start, one of the best in the competition. But coming off the eighth corner their sled hit the wall and the team endured 600m of ice grinding against their fibreglass helmets. The harrowing incident was broadcasted all over the globe, with the image of the four-man team being dragged along the ice luge as the world watched in stunned silence. The dream of Jamaican bobsledding appeared to have been over as soon as it began. The team, miraculously uninjured, slowly rose to their feet. Walking silently towards the finishing line with only the sound of their cleats crunching against the ice, it seemed all their hopes were over.
Then, through the wall of crisp silence, the sound of a single clap pierced through. Then another. In a moment of pure triumph, the four men found themselves marching towards the finish line in a resounding crescendo of cheers.
Speaking as a man who has traversed the ups and downs of following a dream he offers some advice, ‘Look around the world and you see examples of organisations and individuals that have really pushed hard at the beginning and success they envisioned, then they pause, and become complacent whilst the world moves on. The challenge for all of us is to accept that it’s a continuous process, and you have to remain hungry’.
The Jamaica Bobsled team first started as a team in 1987. Dudley Stokes, Devon Harris, Michael White, Samuel Clayton and George Fitch. (Photography- Ron Fanfair)
As we reach the end of our interview, the conversation inevitably turns to the Hollywood 1993 classic “Cool Runnings” that brought this whole story to life in the imaginations of many around the world. We ask Harris what his thoughts were on the nineties classic. Looking bemused, the former Olympian admits the film did a good job in capturing the spirit of the story, “it tells good life lessons, but they took a lot of poetic license to make it funny.” And, when any film fan probes him to identify which character represents him, Harris teases, “I tell people I’m the handsome one, the movie is loosely based on real life, but if I had to choose one I’d be the bald headed guy. He was a dreamer, he was the one who wanted to go to Buckingham Palace.”
As an original member of the 1988 Jamaican bobsled team and captain of the 1992 and 1998 teams; 3-time Olympian, Devon Harris achieved his dream. Now an international motivational keynote speaker and philanthropist, his organisation helps inspire others to achieve theirs. Tapping the same energy, determination and skills that enabled him to bobsled with the best in the world, Devon, is now sparking audiences of all ages to dream big and take their “game” to the next level.