Move Over Usain Bolt, Jamaican Cool Runners Hope to Qualify for Sochi Games
Winston Watts is booming the message over loud, clear and with an unstoppably infectious laugh. “Man, you should see me! Age is just a number. You’d never believe I was a man of 46. You’d say maybe 30, 35. I’m big, dark and handsome, like a 6ft, 235lb runnin’ back.”
His message from New York is this: Jamaicans are going back to the snow, they are going to reheat one of the best Winter Olympic stories and the legend of Cool Runnings bobsledders will ride once more in the safe hands of an old goalkeeper who is a proper athlete and properly cool, like Chris Gayle with a Calippo.
Watts has done his math, he has calculated all the possibilities in the labyrinthine maze which is the Olympic bobsleigh qualifying process and has concluded that, barring some freakish happenings in the final qualifying races in St Moritz this weekend, he and his brakeman Marvin Dixon, a former quarter-miler from one of the meaner streets of Kingston, are guaranteed a place in the two-man bob at the Winter Olympics.
Jamaica’s return after a 12-year absence ought to be a cause of rejoicing, not least because Watts is such an engaging, enjoyable man. He brings back the joy of seeing the original Caribbean sunshine sledding quartet bobbing into Olympic folklore at the 1988 Calgary Games, leading to Disney’s laughably fanciful but lovely translation of their fairytale.
Watts was part of what he calls “Cool Runnings, the Second Generation”, an infantryman from the island’s rural heartland in Clarendon who loved football and could chuck a mean discus but was wooed into joining the military’s quickly celebrated bobsleigh program only initially to figure he must be insane when he encountered life in the fast chute. “And I was no Usain. I couldn’t sprint to save myself,” he said.
Still, he was explosively strong. By the time he drove the two-man sled in his third Games in Salt Lake City in 2002 with some distinction, having set a then-Olympic record time for the push start with Lascelles Brown, it also proved, sadly, the end of a romantic era. The novelty value, the money and Jamaica’s ambition had dried up.
Yet Winston’s love for sledding never melted. He left the island, moved to New York with his childhood sweetheart and, though they split up, he went west to Wyoming, wooed back to the little old railroad town of Evanston which had first adopted him and the Jamaican team before those 2002 Games.
An hour down the road at the Olympic track in Park City, he would watch the new drivers with envy and realize how much he missed what he loved and how “with me being in great shape, man” he could still beat the youngsters.
“I was hungry and I was angry,” he said, although you could hardly imagine this laid-back character being either.
So after losing his job as a wireline operator in the Wyoming oilfields and by now with a new girlfriend and baby, Winston Junior, to think of, he took a risk two years ago which he could not really afford. That is, to go sledding full-time and rekindle the dream of a fourth Games.
For two years, in the sort of sequel Disney might again fancy, it has proved a romantic if chaotic Stateside road trip adventure littered with crashes, funding setbacks, entrepreneurial enterprise and masses of begging and borrowing just to keep their green, yellow and black Honda Accord, styled like some giant road sled, on the road.
Without support from the Jamaica Olympic Association, says Watts, it has been a struggle. At least, the original Cool Runners of Calgary were backed by the riches of US businessmen; Watts’s efforts have had to be much more DIY, with him even having had to fork out of his own savings in the early days just to help pay for team-mates to fly to the States.
“I just about get by financially. Beg, scrape, it’s hard. I’ve got headaches a lot of times man, believe you me,” he sighs. “Sometimes my coach [Tom Samuel, an old Canadian rival who used to outdrive him] says ‘just focus’ and I say ‘how?’ I just trust things will turn over OK. I put God in front of me and just leave everything to him like a father.”
The original idea of having a team contesting the four-man bob finally had to be abandoned because of injuries to other crewmen and lack of funding but Watts and Dixon, a former sprinter who came out of the volatile streets of Rockfort in the Jamaican capital, have just kept battling manically to scrape in among the 30 qualified Olympic two-man sleds.
And whatever you do, do not call them Olympic tourists. When Watts gets serious about his athletic ability, he adds that he has the aggression of a UFC fighter.
Yet there is, he accepts, still a danger that the ending will not be to Disney’s saccharine taste. For even though qualification should be safe after a tremendous fifth-place finish at a North American Cup race in Lake Placid last week, the team have no money to fly to St Moritz for this weekend’s final qualifying competition, the event which was to be their “insurance policy”.
“In truth, we still don’t really know at the moment if we’d even have enough funds or sponsorship to fly to Sochi itself for the Games itself,” Watts shrugs. “It all depends. Our families need to be taken care of first. If there’s no funding, who knows?
“But, I’m one of life’s optimists. I put my heart on the line for this. Any British companies out there interested in sponsorin’ us?” he inquires cheerily. “Hopefully, the Jamaican Olympic Association will step in and support us now that we’ve qualified.”
After all, he is a man worth supporting. Watts understands that he is going to be the second-oldest bobsleigh pilot in Olympic history but he also wonders whether he could just be making history as the first man to compete at different Games under different names.
“Yes, in my previous Games I was known as Winston Watt. They made a mistake on my passport. Still, I just flow with it. It don’t matter what I compete under, I just use the name that suits the day. Winston Watt, Winston Watts. Whatever, makes no difference, man. I’ll still be fast!”
Yes, 80 mph fast. And we thought Usain Bolt was Jamaica’s fastest, coolest Olympian.
For more on this story, please visit Ian Chadband’s article at telegraph.co.uk.