The end credits say ”based on” the true story of the 1988 Jamaican Olympic bobsled team. The ads, a bit more precise, only went as far as ”inspired by.” Cinema scholars may conclude that, historically speaking, Cool Runnings isn’t exactly The Sorrow and the Pity.
Original team member Devon Harris, 29, who now lives in the Bronx, says he found Cool Runnings ”very inspiring.” But true to life? ”The movie accurately depicted the spirit of the team,” he notes. ”For purposes of entertainment, they portrayed us with far more color, let us say.”
In the movie, the teammates are a collection of wildly dissimilar characters. The real squad was comprised of three soldiers (Harris, who’s working as a cook while studying hospitality management; Michael White, 29, an electrical engineer on Long Island; and Dudley Stokes, 31, who owns a helicopter tour company in Jamaica) and an MBA candidate (Dudley’s brother, Chris Stokes, 31, who helps run the tour company). White, who says he enjoyed the movie so much he’s seen it five times, takes a world-weary attitude toward the filmmakers’ poetic license. ”Maybe 10 percent of the movie is perfectly accurate,” he says. ”The rest was just Hollywood trying to make its money.”
Harris is less blase about one aspect of the movie: its depiction of the coach. In the movie, John Candy plays Irv Blitzer, a disgraced former Olympian stripped of his gold medal for cheating. The real team’s first coach, Howard Siler, ”was one of the top competitors in the world,” Harris says. ”The script did him an injustice.”
Indeed, the real-life team began as an adventure for American George Fitch and expatriate American William Maloney, who formed the Jamaican Bobsled Federation. Fitch says that he invested $85,000 of his own, hoping, first, to make it back (he did), and then to see the JBF benefit from sponsorship and merchandising.
Despite reservations about the coach’s depiction, Harris — who along with his former teammates received a fee for story rights and has been promised a small percentage of any profits — is happy with the finished product. ”The exposure was wonderful for bobsledding and for Jamaica,” he says. ”The movie was probably the highest accolade you could get as a team.” And the second highest? Probably that just two Olympics later, the 1994 Jamaican four-man team, with Dudley and Chris Stokes on board, finished 14th — right ahead of the U.S.