U.S. Mayor Recalls Putting Together The First Jamaican Bobsled Team

The Jamaican bobsled team is always an underdog at the Olympics. Mayor George Fitch of Warrenton, Virginia put the first team together in 1988, and helped inspire the Disney film Cool Runnings. Mayor Fitch speaks with host Michel Martin about the legacy of the team and his thoughts on this year's Games.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're going to stay in the spirit of the Winter Olympics. You might be keeping an eye on the Jamaican bobsled team. Their first appearance at the winter games back in 1988 was immortalized in the popular Disney movie "Cool Runnings." Here's a clip.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "COOL RUNNINGS")

DOUG E. DOUG: (As Sanka Coffie) ...I am Sanka Coffie, I am the best pushcart driver in all of Jamaica. I must drive. Do you dig where I'm coming from?

JOHN CANDY: (As Irv) Yeah, I did where you're coming from.

DOUG: (As Sanka Coffie) Good.

CANDY: (As Irv) Now dig where I'm coming from. I'm coming from two gold medals. I'm coming from nine world records in both the two and four-man of events. I'm coming from ten years of intense competition with the best athletes in the world.

DOUG: (As Sanka Coffie) That's a hell of a place to be coming from.

MARTIN: Well, that was a very loose portrayal of what actually happened. And we wanted to know what did actually happen so we've called George Fitch. He is the mayor of Warrenton, Virginia and he's one of the men who started the team. And he is with us now. Mr. Mayor, thank you so much for joining us.

MAYOR GEORGE FITCH: Well, thank you for having me.

MARTIN: So let's just get this straight upfront, you were not then and are not now a disgraced drunken former Olympian looking for redemption as portrayed by John Candy. All right.

FITCH: Thank you for clearing that up.

MARTIN: All right, so let's get that out of the way. So let's start, though, how did you get the idea to start a Jamaican bobsled team? It was kind of a dare, right?

FITCH: Yes, like most ideas that end up something like that, it comes from a discussion amongst some friends. And I had gone back to Jamaica for a friend's wedding. I'd lived in Jamaica back in '85 - '86 when I was set down there to set up some commercial trade investment programs as part of Reagan's task force in the Caribbean-based initiative. And then I was assigned to Paris and to the embassy there. So I'd come back and friends - we were talking about the upcoming Summer Olympics.

Anyways, long story short, I was challenged to get Jamaica to the Winter Olympics with six months to go. So in going down the list of all winter sports, wanting to be competitive, not wanting to be an embarrassment or a disgrace, the one that popped up because it suited Jamaica's athletic attributes of speed and power, was bobsledding. And I bounced the idea off the American Bob Federation people at Placid. They said, yes, there were going to be some noncompetitive teams, so off we go.

MARTIN: You know, it's funny though because other people have followed your lead here...

FITCH: Right.

MARTIN: In that, subsequently, other Summer Olympics like the sprinter Lolo Jones for example, is now competing. And I wonder if they got the idea from you. Do you - did you think that it would take off in the way that it did? I mean, even - you know, Hollywood, you know, embellishments aside - that people would become so captivated by the idea?

FITCH: No, I certainly didn't do that. I was so preoccupied with - I've got just a short period of time to get the team trained, to get everything organized. It was basically a baptism under fire for me. I'd never done it before. And so that was my full concentration. And I really even couldn't enjoy Calgary because all I did was concentrate, OK. Especially since after we did the two - and the movie unfortunately does not portray that, where we made Olympic history by beating 10 teams in the two-man event. We had no intention to do the four, that's another long story. But to answer your question, I'm very grateful and very pleased actually to see that, I think, we did inspire.

We certainly inspired other countries and other islands because the following Olympics at Albertville, there were six bobsled teams from the Caribbean islands. And I'd like to think we also inspired other than bobsledding sports from nontraditional Winter Olympic countries. All we have to do is just look at the opening ceremonies, as I did, and the delegation - you got delegations from Dominica, from Togo, from Nepal. And I'd like to think that at least some of their inspiration came from back in '88 - well, the Jamaicans did it and they're not from a winter country, so we can do it as well. And that was the point that I wanted to prove, to show people. As long as you're a good athlete, you should be able to do any sport.

MARTIN: Well, you know, to that end, though, the Jamaica - Jamaica crowdsourced money to get to Sochi, and the outpouring of money was far beyond what they had asked for. In fact, they raised double the amount that they had originally asked for in 48 hours, to the point where they shut down the fundraising because they didn't want people to think that they were, you know, taking advantage. And you did a little something like that yourself back in '88, some old-fashioned fundraisers. I did want to ask, what is that you think has so captivated people's attention? Is it like the underdog getting a shot? What do you think it is that people just love about the story so much?

FITCH: Yeah, it's definitely the underdog. It's definitely challenging the establishment, challenging the IOC. They wanted to keep us out of the Olympics. They thought we were going to be an embarrassment. And if it wasn't for Prince Albert of Monaco, as the senior VP with IOC, and stepping in and changing that, we wouldn't have been to Calgary. So, yes, it's definitely the underdog taking on the establishment. And I also believe it's the Jamaican spirit. The Jamaicans have a very endearing heartwarming people and I think they showed that. They weren't surly, elderly as some of these bobsled teams ended up being.

MARTIN: Surly and elderly?

FITCH: Well, yeah. The people in U.S. Virgin Islands that were, I think, were 60 years old and I didn't see a smile on their face.

MARTIN: So they seemed to not be loving it, interesting. We only have about a minute and a half left, but I intrigued by something you said. You said it really wasn't even that fun for you because you were so busy working. Can you - but the team had fun? I mean, you didn't have fun, but the team had fun?

FITCH: Oh, the team? Yeah, no - the team didn't have fun any either because we - after the two-man, we entered the four-man. And so we couldn't sit back and enjoy the remaining eight days of the Olympics when our event finished because they all wanted to do the four. And they convinced me to do the four, which I don't know whether I should have or not, but - we had never been in a four, we didn't have a four sled and I only had three guys sitting around my room in the Olympic village. Anyways, we don't have much time and that's a long story how all those three problems were solved.

MARTIN: OK, well, you did it. So thank you. Good preparation for being mayor, right? Problem-solving.

FITCH: It is. It certainly did. And I'm certainly glad I was mayor. And I certainly enjoyed, satisfied - as I'm about to step down here - on all the things that we accomplished here in Warrington.

MARTIN: That was George Fitch. He's serving his last term as the mayor of Warrington, Virginia, where he's been serving for some 16 years now. He helped found the Jamaican bobsled team back in 1988. And he was with us by phone. Mr. Mayor, thanks so much for joining us.

FITCH: Thank you.

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