Jamaican Bobsled Team: Sochi Mission Accomplished

Well done gentlemen

Winston and Marvin – Well done gentlemen

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

This short and succinct paragraph from an Associated Press article carried by the Washington Post on February 22, 2014, entitled ‘Jamaican bobsled team faces uncertain future’, bypasses all other frivolous commentary of entertainment value only and goes directly to the central issue facing the Jamaican bobsled program.

The Jamaican 2-man bobsled team of Winston Watt and Marvin Dixon finished 29th out of 30 teams in their event at the Olympic Winter Games in Sochi.  Serbia, which was in 29th position after the first two runs, while Jamaica was 30th, did not show for the final day of competition hence Jamaica slid over one space.  This result has drawn criticism from some quarters, including being referred to as a ‘flop’ in the Jamaica Observer of February 17, 2014.  Yet as I stood in the VIP tent at the Sanki Sliding Center watching the race with Jamaica Olympic Association General Secretary, Christopher Samuda, my first thought as Winston and Marvin crossed the finish line in 58.17 seconds was, ‘Mission accomplished’.

To be plain, I was disappointed and even appalled at the performance on the track.  Jamaica bobsled has a proud and long history of outstanding performances in the sport.  The 1988 Cool Runnings team, had the 7th fastest start time on the run on which they crashed and were immortalized by Hollywood.  In 1994, the 4-man team with Dudley Stokes as driver, Winston Watt pushing number two, Nelson Stokes and Wayne Thomas finished 14th overall, 10th  on the two runs on the second day, had the same start time as the eventual Gold medalist and beat many bobsled powerhouses including the US.  In the 2002 Olympic Winter Games, Winston Watt and Lascelles Brown set a start record of 4.78 seconds.  Lascelles Brown went on to be the best pusher for Canada for several years winning Olympic Silver in 2006 and Bronze in 2010 along the way.

Our ability to produce bobsled pushers of the highest caliber is well within our capacity and within that context these results could be interpreted as a terrible Sisyphean dilemma.

Why then would a 29th place finish on a 21st place push be ‘Mission accomplished’? Winston Watt and Marvin Dixon were the solution to a challenge the Jamaica Bobsled program faced.

Unlike many of the leading bobsled nations in the world, the Jamaica Bobsleigh Federation does not receive material funding for its program from either the central government, its agencies or its National Olympic Committee.  This is not a complaint but rather a recognition of the realities of living in a country with a 0.1% growth rate in GDP, 14.1% unemployment, 130% debt-to-GDP ratio, and the IMF hanging over its head like the sword of Damocles.

The Jamaica Olympic Association has been a steady supporter for the past 25 years, and was instrumental in funding the qualifying campaign for Sochi, but it is unlikely that any such local institution or Ministry could come up with the near $500,000 per year over a 4-6 year period which, if well spent on driven athletes, would put Jamaica readily in a medal contending position.

One would still believe though that a sagacious public servant may look at, for example, Winston Watt’s appearance on Piers Morgan on February 6, 2014 which was watched by 972,008 viewers, for 4 minutes and 31 seconds with a media value of $26,630 per 30 seconds totaling just over $239,670 worth of exposure for brand Jamaica, and could make a business case for investing in the team.  It is not our inclination or habit to turn first to the Government for help so we spend our energies elsewhere.

If we are to raise the funds to sustain such a campaign we must do it largely by ourselves, a challenge which we do not shrink from but rather embrace.  Jamaica Bobsled after all, has what money can hardly buy, a well-loved brand.  Our strategy therefore is to monetize the brand and fund the program.  Monetizing the brand begins with raising brand awareness.  The Sochi Games provided a great opportunity for this.  With the world’s media trained on the Games, a return of the Jamaican Bobsled team, bolstered by the simmering and sustained popularity of Cool Runnings, could set the Games ablaze.

This was therefore in large part the sub-plot to Watt’s appearance at the Games.  We knew he would not win a medal and may not even be in the top 20.  The question of whether or not we should enter a team that was not world class was the subject of debate but we all realized that the mere act of qualifying would, in the circumstances, be a monumental achievement, worthy of recognition of itself.

As William Yancey said of Jefferson Davis ‘The man and the hour have met’.

And so, Winston Watt met Sochi, and I believe if memory serves me well, the excitement may have exceeded that of Calgary.

A mountain of a man with a huge smile, thundering laugh and an engaging demeanor more familiarly known to his army comrades as Dingo, short for Mandingo, Winston Watt is overbearing, he can be selfish, self-centered, and an egomaniac who is energized by media attention and takes offense when heads of state, kings and princes do not recognize him.  Yet there is scarce a man who has made his mark on this world who would not claim for himself the larger part of that protestant list of vices.

He was called to take the mantle of Jamaica Bobsled half buried rusty and dusty, shine it off and set it up for other athletes to come.  In this regard he has not ‘flopped’ but has succeeded beyond expectation.  Winston has done his part and has done it well.  I could not think of anyone more suited for the purpose.

Hard work remains, converting media attention into sponsorship and merchandising, refining our model of crowdfunding and social media engagement, and the central work of recruiting and developing world-class bobsledders.  We do not now know them, their names, background, character but we do know that they are here in this land. It is up to us to find them and provide the opportunities for them to make their way to the podium.  And on that day, I hope that someone will remember what Winston Watt and Marvin Dixon did in qualifying for the Sochi Olympics.  Well done gentlemen.

We stop for a moment to reflect on what was accomplished, but not for too long, as we are ever mindful of the words of that great New England poet Robert Frost:

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,

But I have promises to keep,

And miles to go before I sleep,

And miles to go before I sleep.

N. Christian Stokes is a director of the Jamaica Bobsleigh Federation and was Jamaica’s Chef de Mission to the Sochi Olympic Winter Games.  Follow him on Twitter @NChrisStokes, and Like him on Facebook N. Christian ‘Chris’ Stokes

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