With the passing of the recent Summer Olympics in London, I feel like I missed a huge party that everyone else was invited to. The big reason behind that, really, is that I couldn’t care less. I’m partial to the winter-ized sports, where people have to try harder, bundle up tighter, and tolerate much more because they’re no longer in an optimal fitness environment. But don’t take that as too much of an endorsement: I don’t watch the Winter Olympics, either. I am, however, more than happy to watch movies based on them.
This (largely-fictionalized) tale of Jamaica’s first Olympic bobsled team was a childhood treasure. We saw it in theaters when it debuted in 1993, and virtually every successive year in a classroom when the teacher wanted a day off. It’s a colorful, funny film from that informed me, as a young kid, that it didn’t matter what your point of origin was, you could accomplish anything.
Olympian-grade sprinters Derise and Yul Bbrenner are (literally) on the fast track to compete for Jamaica in the 1988 Summer Olympic games in Seoul when the clumsy, but well-meaning Junior trips them up in the 100m relay. Unable to redo the race, Derise is advised to try again in four years, an eternity for an athlete trying to follow in the footsteps of his father, himself a legendary sprinter. Derise’s disappointment is quickly flipped to fevered excitement when he discovers a picture of his father with an American gold medalist, Irving Blitzer (John Candy), a man who came to the island years ago to recruit a bobsled team. They find him presiding over a shanty dive and losing on horse races, completely drained of his will to recreate his former glroy. With persistence and charm, Derise convinces him to start building the team, practicing with rickety, modified push karts.
While Derise is perturbed at his Summer Olympics snub, it’s clear he wants to chart new territory for Jamaican sports. But the others have their motivations, too. Yul Brenner, the brute of the squad, wants off the squalid island in favor of new digs in exotic palaces. Junior wants to escape the shadow of his father who, in the lead up to their departure for Calgary, sets him up for a position at a prestigious law firm in Miami. The team being able to secure funds from the Jamaican Olympic office, Junior secretly works against his father and sells his car to finance their trip. The goofy Sanka, who serves as the film’s comic relief and Derise’s friend since childhood, seems to only be along for the ride. He’s a push kart driver and as we’re introduced to him, doesn’t appear to be a great one as evidenced by a foreshadow-y crash. He hates the frigid Calgary climate, he hates the task, and he squeals like Chris Tucker’s Ruby Rhod in their initial runs, but Sanka ultimately serves as the glue that binds the team. If Sanka is getting over the struggle, why should the others have any issue?
The advertising at the time made the premise abundantly clear: Jamaican Bobsledders, RIGHT?!?! But now that I’m no longer nine years old, I can appreciate what they’re getting at. From the outset, you knew they were going to get a bobsled and cool uniforms and compete in the Olympics, but watching it with a clear mindset makes their task seem far more formidable. They have no training gear, they have no money, they arrive in Calgary without a sled, which Blitzer must beg out of a former teammate. The media, the Olympic staff, and fellow Olympians hold them to a lower standard than nations that are obviously studied in the art. And yet these four sledders brush off the insults and persevere. We soon discover that the team is struggling with its identity just as much as it is struggling against the odds.
The movie skirts being cheesy (how many cold weather jokes do you need, Sanka?) and melodramatic (insert John Candy storm-the-meeting-room scene here) by being fun and endearing. When we see the strobing fast turns from the sled POV shots, we feel for these fish, clearly far from water. We enjoy the warm sounds of steel drums and we cry when their bobsled fails, watching as they hoist it above their shoulders in a dramatic last push to the finish line. But, what do you mean that other countries helped them during their struggles in Calgary? What do you mean the original team was recruited from the Jamaican army because no one else would volunteer? What do you mean that coach Blitzer and his bobsled cheating scandal never existed?
Why let facts get in the way of a good story? Cool Runnings is a classic film. I might’ve thought it was an Oscar-worthy film as a kid, but even if it can’t win any gold medals on its own, it will reign forever as that Jamaican Bobsleigh movie you need in your collection.
This is a film I didn’t see growing up. In fact, aside from a half-hour snippet playing in a break room at work years ago, I hadn’t seen Miracle until 2:30 this morning, sitting in bed with my tablet. I loved playing super-amateur hockey on any flat surface in gym class growing up – usually hanging back as a defender because I lacked the dexterity of my peers to actually, y’know, play the game well – which is probably why I never developed a full-on passion for the sport. Unlike Cool Runnings, Miracle plays close to the source material and is a higher-brow, crisp film. As it highlights in an opening montage, the American people are stressed by a variety of international issues by 1979. Vietnam, the Watergate scandal, escalation in gas prices because of OPEC quarrels, and the Iranian hostage situation are just the tip of the iceberg.
Herb Brooks (a well-placed and mature Kurt Russell, who looks little like the original figure) is recruited by the US Olympic Committee to head up their 1980 attempt for gold in hockey, a sport dominated by the well-trained Soviets for nearly twenty years. Brooks had been on that 1960 team as a player, but was dismissed weeks before their gold medal upset, which lead him to a career of teaching the sport and becoming successful at the University of Minnesota (Russell does a cute Minnesota accent that, thankfully, operates a few degrees below Frances McDormand’s in Fargo). In a post-Steve Jobs world, (the film was released in 2004, before Apple’s rise to prosperity) Herb comes across as a similarly polarizing and messianic figure. He’s cruel in his drills, he doesn’t really care what you think, he has a plan and you’re not privvy to it until he decides you are. You are a disposable component of his whims.
The team he builds, done entirely down the street from FEZ HQ here in Colorado Springs, is made up of amateur players from a variety of colleges, but mostly from his old Minnesota team and rival Boston. He condemns all-star teams because the clash of their egos outweighs any individual skillset they may have, opting to choose the ‘right’ players who will conform to the needs of the team, rather than try to shine in their own right. He pulls twenty-six names and tells them that those who weren’t picked are given ‘the easy part’ and whittle that list to twenty even. Now they must train, train, and train. Like a rugged military course, they must drill until they get it right, they must drill until they’re conditioned. They must endure against the Soviets, who rack up wins by flipping over exhausted opponents. Unlike the Soviets, they don’t have a decade of experience behind them, they have seven months to become world class. When they manage to merely tie the Norway team in a championship game, Brooks bullies them into a series of rushing drills, presumably for hours, that test the already-drained players, even over the protests of his assistant coach (Noah Emmerich, a friendly face in any films) and team doctor.
Both Disney films, Miracle trades the light-hearted and comical appeal of Cool Runnings for a more earnest and accurate re-telling (although I despise its graphic design and anachronistic CGI and typefaces, but that’s a minor point). The Soviets say nothing throughout the film, a reminder of the threat they posed as the player on the other end of the Cold War. And while it’s harder to remember any of these players versus their Jamaican counterparts, that’s sort of the point. Sports have their heroes, but Herb Brooks didn’t want heroes, he wanted a winning team. He got that.