Chances are you may have seen Cool Runnings, the 1993 Disney hit film inspired by the true story of the first athletes representing Jamaica in the 1988 Winter Olympics. If not, have you been living under a rock? In all seriousness, the film becomes undeniably impressive when you understand the reality of the historical 1988 run. I was given the opportunity to interview the founder of Jamaica’s first and now-iconic bobsleigh team: Dudley ‘Tal’ Stokes.
Stokes is the embodiment of this magazine’s theme. When one thinks of a milestone, the notion of making history and changing something forever are attributes that certainly can be linked to it. The unthinkable is what makes sport what it is: beautiful. Stokes and his team did not just make history, but they paved the way for Jamaican representation and appreciation at the Winter Olympics.
Growing up, Stokes never envisioned himself competing in a sport like bobsleigh, though the former Olympian grew up “dreaming of representing Jamaica at something.” Stokes’ Jamaican team only had a short five months to gel and prepare for the 1988 games in Calgary, so maintaining a strong focus on performing at their best possible level was key heading into the tournament. Stokes mentioned that the mentality he tried to instil in his team and himself was to do their “level-best” despite being viewed as the underdog as they did not seem to have enough preparation time to compete in such a dangerous sport.
Fast forward to the 1988 event, Jamaica powerfully proved themselves in their four-man debut. Stokes, along with his team, won the hearts of the world following their commendable performance. While they did not officially finish due to crashing, Stokes spoke of how people were “unanimous in welcoming the team back as heroes.” The success of the Jamaican cohort in 1988 would, of course, serve as the source of inspiration for the hit Disney sports-drama Cool Runnings. Stokes’ response to the movie reflected his humble nature, stating that while the film took elements of the 1988 story, he has come to not criticise the movie over the years due to its mass success. He noted that “there are a lot of people to whom the movie brings a smile to their faces, I could not ask for more.”
Stokes was not finished in 1988, if anything this was just the introduction to a beautiful story. In the build-up to 1992, Stokes utilised the crash of 1988 as an instrument to push his team to new limits.
A lot of it was on my own. Travelling to Europe and being exposed to different tracks, always looking around to get better athletes, sliding as much as we could with our limited project. But also working on our visualisation for training, there was a lot of training back home in Jamaica, visualising our run physically, seeing if I could recreate it as much when practicing.
With higher quality sleds at their disposal in 1992, Jamaica finished 24th in the four-man event. With two Winter Olympics two years apart, Jamaica familiarised themselves with their new equipment. As a result of such conditions, Jamaica finished impressively in 14th place in 1994.
We added a coach who was a bit eccentric but had very novel ideas, we were open to it. Cool Runnings was then released and suddenly we generated interest and were able to secure some sponsorship, we got $60,000 which we went to the games with. We finished ahead of all the American sleds. It was down to a lot of hard work, guided by an overall plan we tried to stick to.
Fast forward to 2022, Stokes took on a mentoring role in Benjamin Alexander’s alpine skiing pursuit. Alexander, a former DJ from Wellingborough, became Jamaica’s first alpine skier at the Winter Olympics. According to Stokes, Alexander pursued him over social media, seeking advice on his journey.
I was reluctant because a lot of Olympic athletes just go to the Olympic games because they can and just tick that off. I was afraid he was one of those people. But 5-10 mins into the conversation, I realised he had a rationale and a plan and he was pursuing this thing for significant reasons, that could also be for representing Jamaica. So, I agreed to help him where I could on his journey.
At the recent 2022 Beijing games, Alexander’s story was a breath of fresh air. He finished in 46th place, ahead of 43 other athletes who registered a DNF. Stokes’ influence was crucial in enabling Alexander to compete, the thorough conversations that took place between the two on important topics such as mental approaches proved to be pivotal in developing the necessary conditions for Alexander to achieve what he did. 2022 also marked the first time in 24 years that a four-man team entered the bobsleigh event. While they finished last, the ability to compete at the highest level remains a milestone in itself.
Stokes’ efforts define milestones. His role in Jamaica’s evolution from 1988 onwards is worthy of total recognition and the fact that he continues to pass on his wisdom to future stars such as Benjamin Alexander highlights his position as a true leader. When asked what was one thing he wanted people to remember him for, this is what Stokes stated:
Remember me as a guy who went from comedian to competitor who crashed at the 1988 Winter Olympics after 5 months training and I kept coming back year after year until I became a competitor and took my place among the top-performing bobsleigh athletes.