Devon Harris, pilot of the 1988 Jamaican bobsled team
courtesy Devon Harris

Peace be the journey

An interview with Devon Harris, pilot of the 1988 Jamaican bobsled team

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The 1988 Winter Olympic Games brought international athletes, media and fans to Calgary. There were few athletes who received more attention during those two weeks than the intrepid Jamaican bobsled team. 

The team’s Olympic dream ended with a horrific crash, but is widely recognized as one of the biggest stories of the entire games. The experience of the Jamaican bobsled team at the Calgary Olympics later served as the inspiration for the film Cool Runnings. The movie — mostly filmed in Calgary — enjoyed international success.

Many Calgarians know the version of the Jamaican bobsled team’s story popularized by Disney’s Cool Runnings but far fewer know the stories of the real athletes that competed in Calgary 25 years ago. Devon Harris was the team’s pilot and his story is quite different from the one shown in the movie.

“Growing up I always wanted to be in the army, so I worked really hard in school and right after school I enlisted,” said Harris. “I completed basic training in 1984 and then in 1985 I went to royal military academy in Sandhurst [England], was commissioned, then went back to Jamaica.”

Qualifying for an Olympic games was on Harris’s mind prior to 1988, but bobsledding was not part of that plan. Harris was hoping to qualify for the 1988 summer Olympics held in Los Angeles. While the movie depicts the team’s pilot as a sprinter, Harris was actually training to race middle distance track events.

“I couldn’t run fast, everybody could run fast except me, so I thought I would try to outlast them,” said Harris. “So every morning before reporting, I would go run five miles to get fit enough to hopefully qualify for the 1988 games.”

However, Harris did not qualify for the summer games. But just a few months before the start of the Calgary Olympics, he first heard about the forming of a Jamaican bobsled team. Two Americans living in Jamaica came up with the idea looking to harness Jamaica’s strong athletics program. After being turned down by Jamaican sprinters, the Americans came to the Jamaican army looking for athletes.

Harris was not sold on the idea of having a Jamaican team competing in the winter Olympics. However, at the recommendation of a superior in the army, Harris attended the tryout.

“When I first heard about the tryout I didn’t think I would ever go, I thought it was a ridiculous idea. I remember saying that no one could ever get me to go on one of those things,” said Harris. “My colonel suggested that I try out for the team. So I went out for the team and got selected and next thing you know I’m in Calgary living my dream competing at the Olympic games.”

Harris recalls the games and the transformation of Calgary itself as surreal.

“We were just shocked at how much construction had taken place and then just the Olympic atmosphere, the city had transformed, every lamp post had a banner and all that stuff. Then just being there for the Olympics, marching in the opening stadium and seeing 60,000 people cheering, in that moment you’re living your dream marching in the ceremony,” said Harris.

While the bobsled event was taking place, Harris remembers a number of things going on making the competition somewhat hectic.

“You’re there at the Olympic games and you’re racing there and you’re trying to get the best result you can for your country, but because we’re so new to the sport every time there was another team on the track we were out there watching them trying to learn as much as we can. And then it was the first time seeing the big players in the sport so we were a little starry eyed as well,” said Harris.

The Jamaican’s competition did not go as planned and a crash in their final race resulted in a “did not finish” for the team. With the Olympics over, the athletes were nervous about returning to their home country and the kind of reception that awaited them.

“After we crashed, we were really worried about going home because we had failed in our minds and we had embarrassed our country. We thought people would be really pissed off and ridicule us but the reaction was completely different. People were really appreciative, to the point where the government made stamps with our faces on it so that was pretty special,” said Harris.

According to Harris, he and his teammates did not hesitate when the opportunity arose to have a movie based on their lives produced. They were, however, worried about how Disney would portray Jamaicans in the film.

“The one thing we were really concerned about was the stereotypical views that people have of Jamaicans being portrayed in the movie — all of us have dreads and smoke weed kind of thing,” said Harris. “But being on the set watching a movie being filmed about an important part of my life was very flattering.”

Harris said that the team was relieved with the depiction of Jamaica in the movie. As for the possibility of the movie overshadowing the team’s actual story, Harris is not bothered by it.

“I think the movie has done a really good job of giving our story, if not immortality it has given us a really long life. But, more importantly, if Disney did one thing right it depicted the spirit of the team. There were some really good life lessons in there and that’s part of us, that is part and parcel of our story, and that has inspired people from the younger generations,” said Harris.

The lessons learned from his various Olympic experiences informs Harris’s career as a motivational speaker.

“What it did was to reinforce in my mind that it’s okay to dream and to dream big to go after those dreams no matter how difficult or impossible it may seem. That’s the biggest impact it had, so now I’m able to take that life lesson throughout my life, for the rest of my life,” said Harris.

Harris emphasizes the importance of dreams and above all else being persistent in the pursuit of those dreams, something that Harris believed was key to his life, especially him making it to his third Olympic bobsled competition in Nagano, Japan.

“There was no funding and I had no idea to get it. I ended up coaching myself, having a bum knee and I just kept going,” said Harris. “There were tons of times during that period that I could have given up, but I just didn’t and couldn’t. I’m a three-time Olympian in part because I didn’t.”

The author of two books, Harris now makes his home in New York City. He has also founded the Keep On Pushing Foundation with the purpose to give hope and create opportunity for children in Jamaica.

“Our goal is to really help find solutions to some of the things that are preventing kids in disadvantaged communities from getting educated.”