How Accurate Is Cool Runnings?
By Mandi Bierly
Thirty years ago, Jamaica sent its first bobsledders to the Winter Olympics, but the story immortalized in the Disney film isn’t actually theirs.
“Feel the rhythm, feel the rhyme, get on up, it’s bobsled time.” If you’re smiling, it means you either remember the beloved 1993 Disney film Cool Runnings inspired by Jamaican athletes attending their first-ever Winter Olympics, the 1988 Calgary Games, or you understand why the movie remains one of the Top 10 highest-grossing sports comedies in history: It’s the ultimate fish-out-of-water underdog story. What might surprise you, however, is how many changes were made to a tale marketed as a “true story” — enough that even director Jon Turteltaub has said they could never get away with it today.
In the movie, a young sprinter named Derice Bannock (Leon), who’s all but guaranteed to follow in his father’s footsteps and represent Jamaica in the Summer Olympics, gets tripped while qualifying and fails to make the team. He’s devastated, until he sees a photo of his dad with Irv (John Candy, in one of his final roles), an American who’d won two gold medals in bobsledding and tried to convince Derice’s father that Jamaican sprinters would be naturals in the sport. Start speed, when the athletes push the sled before hopping in, is key.
Derice enlists his best friend, Pushcart Derby champion Sanka Coffie (Doug E. Doug), and they convince a reluctant, disgraced Irv (who’s conveniently living in Jamaica) to be their coach. Only two other men are brave/crazy enough to join them: Junior Bevil (Rawle D. Lewis), the rich boy who accidentally tripped Derice and whose father now wants to see him in a suit and tie, and Yul Benner (Malik Yoba), another sprinter taken out by Junior’s fall who views his teammates as a ticket off the island.
Perhaps it should be obvious from their names, but none of those characters existed. The real story is two American businessmen watching a pushcart race got the idea to mount Jamaica’s first bobsled team and had the support of the country’s Olympic Association. When no track athletes were game, they turned to the Jamaica Defence Force to do the majority of their recruiting. In Calgary, Dudley Stokes and Michael White first competed in the two-man event, finishing 30th out of 41 teams. In the four-man event they were joined by Devon Harris and Chris Stokes, Dudley’s brother, who — in a truly unbelievable twist — had only come to Canada to support his sibling but was asked to step in after another teammate injured himself. Chris, who was studying for his MBA at Washington State University and had been a college sprinter, had just three days of training before competing in the Olympics.
What the movie does get right is that the team had an impressive third run (the seventh fastest start in the field) before it ended in a dangerous crash. Some of the actual footage is used in the film, which attributes the crash to their borrowed old sled rather than driver Dudley’s human error. The team did really walk to the finish line as the crowd clapped, although they didn’t carry the heavy sled on their shoulders as seen in the movie (it was pushed). It’s that spirit — fighting to break new ground while knowing you’re already enough, win or lose — that the film truly captures. That’s why the real Jamaican bobsledders have always embraced the movie. And why, even knowing the creative license that was taken, you never have to feel guilty for enjoying it.