Saturday, April 19, 2014
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Jamaican bobsled team faces uncertain future

SOCHI, Russia — The Jamaican bobsled team was the life of the party once again at the Winter Olympics, laughing and joking its way through a trip to Sochi that was fraught with enough financial hardship and travel hijinks to film a sequel to “Cool Runnings.”

They remain as lovable as ever, drawing big crowds wherever they went in Sochi. But they almost never got here at all. And after a 29th-place finish in the two-man competition with a 46-year-old driver, the program faces an uncertain future as it tries to move from novelty act to legitimate medal contender.

“We have the athletic ability. We have shown we can do it,” Chris Stokes, president of the Jamaica Bobsleigh Federation, said. “We just have to pull things together in Jamaica itself.”

The Jamaicans were a sensation when they showed up the Calgary Games in 1988, a fairytale journey from the sandy shores of the Caribbean to the frosty Canadian prairie that inspired the Disney film. They returned the Olympics in 1992, 1994, 1998 and 2002. But they haven’t sniffed the podium in any of those trips and needed to bring Winston Watts out of retirement to help end a 12-year Olympic drought and qualify for the Sochi Games.

Watts and Marvin Dixon got the job done, but they needed a last-minute fundraising push that prompted fans from around the world and Samsung mobile to contribute $178,000 in two days to provide the travel budget for the trip. On their way over, some of the luggage they brought was lost, including the runners for their sled and all their sliding gear. The delay kept Watts and Dixon from getting a training run in on the Wednesday before the games.

Their equipment arrived in the nick of time, but the Jamaicans had a rough go of it on the track in Krasnaya Polyana. Their sled almost flipped over on their second run, and the only reason they didn’t finish in last place was that Serbia failed to finish the competition.

“Our journey here is not easy,” Watts said. “There’s nothing easy in life. It was a rocky road to get here. We have been through a lot of obstacles.”

And as Manute Bol’s basketball career, Michael Jordan’s baseball career and maybe even Tim Tebow’s football career show, novelty will only take you so far.

History is full of colorful sporting characters who captivated audiences, only to fade into obscurity when when their athletic prowess couldn’t match the hype generated by their unique backstories. That’s the challenge the Jamaicans face.

They have taken every step of the way with a smile on their faces and the care-free attitude that is a hallmark back home. But there were signs of frustration. The warm reception the Jamaicans received in Sochi stood in stark contrast to the shrugs and indifference they receive at home, where Usain Bolt and the sprinters rule the sports roost and soak up all the local sponsorship money available.

“I’ve been a little perplexed,” Stokes said. “We have been talking to a lot of companies about sponsoring us. They say, ‘How do we connect Jamaican bobsleigh to the people we want to buy our products?”

Stokes then mentioned the remarkably successful fundraising effort and all the attention the bobsled team receives overseas and wonders why companies back home wouldn’t want to latch on.

In turn, several international sliders, including ones from the U.S., have said they wish they could raise so much money as quickly as the Jamaicans did.

“To me, how do you plug into thousands of people, every state in the US, 57 countries around the world loving a team to the point of going in their pocket to support it?” Stokes said. “That should be an easy business problem to solve.”

Stokes is hopeful that the attention they received in Sochi, and the sponsorship from Samsung, will prompt other companies to jump on board and earn them more steadfast support from the Jamaican Olympic Committee that has been so focused on its Summer Games athletes.

“I think we have the athletes, we have the relationships and I expect now to have a new round of funding that will make it a non-issue for us,” Stokes said. “And I expect to have an athlete on the podium within the next four years and maybe an Olympic medal in four to eight years.

“We have the athletic ability. I think we need to bring a little more focus, spread our base a little bit.”

When asked if Samsung would continue its relationship with the bobsled team beyond the Sochi Games, spokeswoman Brett Cummings said, “We’re very happy with our partnership with the Jamaican bobsled team. We are currently focused on the Sochi Olympic Winter Games.”

Because of the expense, the Jamaicans haven’t sent a four-man team to the Olympics since 1998. And the two-man sled has never finished higher than 28th at an Olympics. With Watts “old as dirt” in his words and expected to drive the sled only for another year or two, the Jamaicans also have to develop a new generation of drivers to give them a chance at taking the next step.

“It’s not all about money. It’s about athletes,” Stokes said. “It’s about commitment, dedication, a sense of the program. The argument is not that, if we have money, we will be on the podium. The argument is that we’re going to be on the podium with what we have.”

The Associated Press

The Associated Press

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