Olympic Bobsleigh: Where have you gone Jamaica?

The bobsleigh is one of those Olympic events that we in Canada are not overly fussed about.  That said, bobsledding represents the marquee event if you are from Germany, Switzerland or Italy.  Personally, I have always been a bit myopic about the various sports that are included in the Olympics.  Men’s and women’s hockey: check.  Skiing: check.  Figure skating: check.  Curling: sure, why not?  I get to sports like the bobsleigh, the luge and the biathlon and question what they are doing being in the Olympics.    Of course these are bit sports in various parts of the world and the athletes are as revered as we Canadians revere Martin Brodeur and Scott Niedemayer.

Bobsledding for me has always been difficult to appreciate.  Two or four men with legs like tree trunks frantically run down the track for 5 seconds and then frantically try to jump into their sled before it gets away from them.  At that point everyone hides and the team leader telepathically says to his team, “Don’t move!  Ready… ready… ok, clench your left buttock…left turn!!”  It is a strange, strange sport that hurtles teams down the track at over 150km/hour.  I suppose all sports are if you had to explain them to the uninitiated.  The exception to this rule is the two-man luge; a sport that doesn’t pass the smell test no matter how many times it is explained to me.

Back in 1988 at the Calgary Olympics, bobsledding got a big boost in coverage when Jamaica entered a team into the competition.   Per Wikipedia, a couple of Americans got the idea to field a team while watching Jamaicans in a ‘pushcart derby’ and thinking the skill set might transfer to the snow.   Of course the skills did not transfer over, but it made for a great story and a mediocre Disney film, Cool Runnings, starring John Candy as the team’s coach.  

The team went on to compete in two more Olympics, finishing an impressive 14th in 1994.   The team still competes, but did not qualify for the Vancouver games.  A friend over of Canada Olympic Park in Calgary told a story last winter of the Jamaican team showing up unannounced wanting to practice on the track that is still in use 22 years after we hosted the Games.  That was fine by COP, but all users of the track pay rental charges.  The Jamaicans did not like this idea, assuming their celebrity ought to translate to a free ride.   Quickly turned down, they turned their attention to getting some free track time in Salt Lake City.  I lose the story at this point, but I suspect the received a similar reception.

Back in North America, the bobsleigh has a history of attracting football running backs.  Hershel Walker is probably the most famous to take up the sports, competing in the 1992 Olympics in Albertville, finishing 7th.   In Vancouver, Jessie Lumsden of the Edmonton Eskimos will compete with the Pierre Leuders Canada #1 four-man team.   It is impressive anytime an athlete excels at more than one sport.  Canada’s flag bearer, Clara Hughes, has Olympic medals at both the Summer and Winter Games.   In fact, she is the only Olympian ever with multiple individual medals in both Games.  Now that is an impressive case study in excelling in multiple sports made more impressive by the fact that she was raised in Winnipeg!

Canada ranks 7th all time in bobsled medals at the Games with 2 Gold and 1 Silver.  The Golds came in 1964 at Innisbrook and by Pierre Leuders in the two-man at Nagano in 1998.   Pierre backed that up in 2006 with a silver medal and ranks as one of our great Olympians.   He will be in Vancouver looking for medal #3 which would be a great end to what has been a great career.


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