Bobsledding opened up opportunities for this original 'Cool Runnings' star
Devon Harris was part of the original 1988 Jamaican bobsled team, whose exploits in the Winter Olympics on the cold slopes of Calgary, Canada, inspired the Disney blockbuster film "Cool Runnings" and catapulted them to worldwide fame.
Harris has had an interesting, if not remarkable, career. Raised in the violent ghettos of Kingston, he rose through the ranks of the Jamaican armed forces to become a captain, competed in three Olympic Games, and now uses his experience and expertise as a speaker to inspire audiences globally.
A football and track-and-field enthusiast, Harris, then a lieutenant in the armed forces, went to the bobsled trials in 1987 at the urging of his commanding officer. Not surprisingly, he made it with the fastest push time.
After the Calgary Games, he captained the Jamaican bobsled team at the 1992 Games in Albertville, France, and the 1998 Olympics in Nagano, Japan.
In his semi-autobiographical book, "Keep On Pushing: Hot Lessons From Cool Runnings," Harris recounts his days in Kingston in considerable detail.
"In high school, I had aspirations of competing in the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles. As far as I knew, a high-school athlete had never represented Jamaica at the Olympic Games, and I wanted to be the first. It never happened. The Olympics came and went, and I was not any closer to achieving that goal. I graduated from high school and enlisted in the Army that year. It was now 1987. The Summer Olympics were coming up in Seoul, South Korea, and I figured that if I got fit enough I would have a shot at representing Jamaica. I started my training in earnest, running 5 miles (8 kilometers) every morning before reporting for duty.
"My big break came one day while I was at work. My commanding officer was passing by my office when he called out to me. This made me nervous. The last time he called me over in such a fashion was the week before the cross-country race, and I ended up on the duty roster for seven consecutive days, with each tour of duty lasting 24 hours. That is what you would call cruel and unusual punishment. This time his instructions were decidedly different and would impact my life in ways I couldn't have imagined ...
"'I want you to go out for the bobsled team trials,' he said, adding that it appeared to be an afterthought that occurred to him as he walked past my office."
Interestingly, Harris writes that after each bobsled trip overseas: "I would literally exchange my bobsled uniform for my Army uniform and go right back to work."
Almost seven months after Calgary, he was called into action after the island was devastated by Hurricane Gilbert. When he was competing in Albertville, violence had broken out in the garrison communities back home.
"When I returned to Jamaica, the troops were deployed around Kingston ... On my second night back in Jamaica, I led an operation on the second floor of a burned-out building overlooking Maxfeld Avenue with one group of soldiers positioned to my north and another just south of my position ..."
According to Harris, bobsledding taught him that the world was full of possibilities and opportunities.
"The biggest lesson I took away from the experience of competing in Calgary is not that I can learn to push a bobsled in a relatively short period of time and become proficient enough to compete in the Olympic Games. What I treasure most from the experience is the knowledge that human beings can achieve any thing they set their minds to."
Harris was honored as an Olympian for Life by the World Olympian Association during the Pyeongchang 2018 Games in South Korea for his significant contribution to society. In this interview with Shanghai Daily, Harris debunks the "Cool Runnings" myth, talks about the preparation for the Calgary Olympics, and discusses his new role as a motivational speaker.
Where are you currently based?
I'm based in New York.
You are a motivational speaker now. What prompted you to take up this role? Did the film "Cool Runnings" influence you in any way?
No, "Cool Runnings" didn't influence my decision to become a motivational speaker. In 1996, as I was preparing to qualify for and compete in the Nagano Olympics, I started working with a gentleman who became my agent. He felt that my personal story, coupled with the story of the Jamaican bobsled team, was quite compelling. He suggested I become a motivational speaker. I, quite frankly, did not know about the industry at the time. I was intrigued but decided that I would focus on the Olympics and take up the idea after the Games. That's what I did.
The story of the Jamaican bobsled team inspired the 1993 hit. How much of it is true?
I believe that in the credits, they say "based on the true story of the Jamaican bobsled team." What they should have said is very loosely based on the true story of the Jamaican bobsled team. Essentially, the facts are these: There was a bobsled team in 1988, we had trouble finding funding, we competed in the Olympics, and we crashed. Disney took a lot of poetic license with the movie ... made up facts and stretched some of them to make it funny. No one tripped at a track meet, there was no lucky egg, and we did not lift the sled and walk with it across the finish line.
What was your reaction after watching the film for the first time?
The first reaction was relief that we were not portrayed as marijuana-smoking athletes. That was a stereotype that we had been pushing back on for the entire time. Secondly, I was inspired. To do what? I don't know, but it was an inspiring story.
Was your coach anything like the role made famous by John Candy?
Not at all. Howard Siler finished in fifth place in the two-man event in the 1980 Lake Placid Olympics and was never a cheater. The entire cheating storyline was a figment of Hollywood's imagination. You are, in fact, allowed to add weights to your sled as long as the sled and athletes do not exceed the maximum allowable weight for athletes and sled combined.
Does "Cool Runnings" mean "Peace Be the Journey?"
That is the meaning conveyed in the movie, but, in Jamaica, it is a term we use to suggest that everything is as it should be ...
How were the selections made for the Jamaican bobsled team in 1988? Were all of you in the army? What was the training like? Where did the team train on the snow for the first time, and what kind of difficulties did you encounter?
Three of the original four team members (Captain Dudley Stokes, Lieutenant Devon Harris and Private Michael White) served in the Jamaica Defense Force. The selection was the same one that the US bobsled team used at the time. We had to sprint, 30 meters, 60m and 300m, do five consecutive standing broad jumps, a standing high jump, throw a shot putt from between your legs, power cleans, and push a makeshift sled. The goal was to test speed and explosive power.
Bobsledding is done on snow but on ice. Our first time on the ice was in Calgary in October 1987. For me, it was a really scary experience. It's something that you had to mentally commit to and face your fears. For me, overcoming my fear of going down the track was the hardest part.
The rest of the training was pretty routine ... weightlifting and sprinting were things we were accustomed to doing, except now we were doing them in the cold. Of course, there were all the things you had to learn about the sled, putting on the runners, lifting it, carrying it, storing it, etc.
Overall, the toughest part of bobsledding was simply believing that I could.
Are the 1988 teammates still in touch?
We are loosely in touch.
What is the reason that Jamaica manages to produce so many sporting heroes, especially in track and field?
I personally think it is one of examples and expectations. Jamaica first competed in the Olympic Games in 1948 and came away with three medals, including a gold, and followed in the next Olympic Games with an even more impressive haul. The quartet of Arthur Wint, Leslie Laing, Herb McKenley and George Rhoden set a fine example for us to follow. I think that is also when the expectations began. You are simply expected to do well when you are on a national team, and people tend to rise to the level of expectation placed on them. Additionally, sports – track and field in particular – are simply ingrained in our culture, and we take a lot of pride in doing well.
Are you involved in Jamaican sports in any capacity?
The Jamaicans will compete in Beijing 2022. How do you rate their chances?
I believe that they will compete hard and compete well, but it is always difficult to predict what the final results will be.
As a former Olympian, do you have any advice for athletes in Beijing and Chinese youth interested in pursuing sports as a career?
To the athletes coming to Beijing, I would tell them to enjoy the moment. Whether or not you have competed before or will compete again, each Olympic experience is unique, so savor it.
To the Chinese youngsters who want to take up sports as a career, I would encourage them to go for it but realize that it requires a huge commitment and there will be many bumps along the way but you will learn a lot about yourself and what it takes to succeed in life in general.