Cool Runnings, by Albert W. Vogt III

There are some films that, frankly, I do not understand how they have such large followings.  Cool Runnings (1993) is in that strange cinematic category.  It is not that it is undeserving of a fandom.  It is a great story that well combines comedic and dramatic elements.  More specifically, it is an underdog tale, and people love their underdogs.  It is also a movie about bobsledding.  Here are the current power-rankings of American sports in terms of viewership: football, basketball, baseball, auto-racing, hockey, everything else, curling, dog shows, spelling bees, hotdog eating contests, competitive yodeling, and then, maybe, bobsledding.  Not that bobsledding lacks excitement.  You have a couple people pushing a sled on ice, only to pile in at the last moment, and go hurtling at terrific speeds down a twisting and turning course.  The reason I put it so low on the above list is because the only time we care one iota for the sport is when the winter Olympics come around, and even then the interest does not spike significantly.  It is a shame, too, because it is a fun event and a good movie.

Cool Runnings begins with the Olympic aspirations of Derice Bannock (Leon).  His focus, though, is not to be what I described in the last paragraph.  Instead, he seeks to fulfill his dream of representing his country as a sprinter in the upcoming 1988 Summer Olympics to be held in Seoul, Korea.  After a great deal of training, he stands ready at a qualifying event to race his way to his goal.  Unfortunately, part way through his heat, he becomes entangled with two other hopefuls and is unable to finish.  Making matters worse, his request for another chance is denied.  However, in the midst of his protest in Barrington Coolidge’s (Winston Stona) office, head of the Jamaican Olympic Committee, Derice sees a picture on the wall of Irving “Irv” Blitzer (John Candy).  When he inquires about this person, he learns that Irv once raced bobsleds and that he is living on the island.  Derice now has a new plan: find Irv and form a Jamaican bobsled team.  When Derice meets Irv, the former bobsledder is not keen on getting back into the sport, and would rather gamble and play pool.  Derice’s persistence eventually wears Irv down.  So far, Derice only has one other teammate, his best friend and Jamaican pushcart champion Sanka Coffie (Doug E. Doug).  Along with Irv as their coach, their next move is to recruit two more people for the sled.  As it happens, these are Yul Brenner (Malik Yoba) and Junior Bevil (Rawle D. Lewis), the two sprinters with which Derice tripped over in his qualifying run.  Still, he is thankful for their participation, particularly since all the other interested parties bailed when Irv showed them a movie clip of the dangers of the sport.  This is Irv’s last opportunity to dissuade the enthusiastic Derice, and now he is resigned to helping.  Aside from the fact that they have a short amount of time to prepare, they also lack the funds to get them to the site of the games in Calgary, Canada, or the required equipment.  Their fundraising efforts, while creative and inventive, do not net them the proper amount.  It is not until the normally reserved Junior steps forward with a pile of cash that they are able to go.  This is significant because his father Whitby (Charles Hyatt) believe his son is being foolish and expects the young man to do as he is told.  Though they are now able to get to Calgary, they still do not possess a sled.  Further, most of the other bobsledders look down on the Jamaican team.  It is not solely their inexperience working against them.  In a previous Olympic games, Irv had cheated and subsequently banned from competition.  What few friends he has are able to help supply him with their vehicle.  Meanwhile, Derice is soaking in the atmosphere of being amongst all the athletes, and taking pride in representing his country.  That pride makes him a leader, and in turn he is made captain of the team.  While Irv trains everyone hard, Derice pushes himself harder.  He is also mesmerized by what he sees from other nations’ teams, and tries to incorporate what they do into Jamaica’s regimen.  The results of all this are a bit shaky.  They are able to barely scrape by into the first rounds of the games.  This becomes clear for the world to see when they finish in last place after their first race.  Everyone is mad at each other, and Sanka points out that Derice should stop trying to be like the other countries.  This inspires them to come back together, and they go out the next day with renewed confidence.  On their third run, though, while zipping through the track at some record speeds, a bolt comes loose from its ancient housing and they crash well short of the finish line.  Undaunted, picking up the weight of their nation on their sled, they carry it the rest of the way down the chute to the end.  It is a move that earns them respect and, as the end crawl proclaims, an invitation back to the next winter Olympics.

By the way, Cool Runnings refers to the name of the sled.  Based on the limited research I did, I am not sure if that matches with historical fact.  Indeed, it would seem that very little of this movie is actually true, outside of Jamaica having a bobsled team in Calgary in 1988.  I am not sure why so many things were changed.  For example, they also had a two-man team that did just poorly as the four.  They also altered the names of the athletes, and apparently Irv was made up for the film.  As a historian, this is something I typically rage against.  I have said it before, and I will say it again: true events in the past are interesting enough on their own.  They do not need somebody coming along and dramatizing them.  I believe the phrase “we live in interesting times” rings especially true in this regard.  The past is interesting enough by itself.  Let it alone.  At the same time, I enjoy this film.  It is simply that knowledge of what really happened somewhat diminishes the impact of the end crawl when it talks about the Jamaican bobsledders returning to the games as equals.

Nonetheless, Cool Runnings points to an important lesson about our aspirations.  Derice is a great example of following that to which you are called.  While it may not have been exactly what he set out to do in being a sprinter, he still realized his dream of representing Jamaica at an international sports competition.  In a sense, it is a vocation.  There is a Catholic buzz word for you.  The Church defines a few categories of vocation, but underscoring all of them is whatever it is God is calling you to do.  The Church’s categories may seem rigid to outsiders, wanting people to choose between either the religious or married life, with some gradations therein.  In either case, it is about answering a call.  This concept can be applied to anything we do in life.  Whether they acknowledge it or not, people like Derice are likely following God’s will for their lives.

Aside from the vast deviations for real events, Cool Runnings is a fun movie to watch.  One could also look at it as slightly racist, particularly with the shenanigans that the team gets into at various points.  The real Jamaican bobsledders were serious athletes that did their part for their country, not clowns with fanciful names that carry eggs in their trousers during races.  In other words, there was nothing intentionally comedic about what Jamaica did in 1988.  Portraying the achievements of people of color in this light is nothing new, though I would stop short of directly calling the movie racist.  It has an uplifting, if not completely accurate message, that is an important one.

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