It’s Bobsled Time (in Warrenton, Va.)
In 1988, George Fitch—now the mayor of Warrenton, Va.—founded the very first Jamaican bobsled team. The team’s celebrated successes and disastrous failures led to the cult classic Disney film Cool Runnings, which starred John Candy playing the role of Fitch—renamed Irv Blitzer in the film.
This year, a Jamaican bobsled team calling itself “Cool Runnings, The Second Generation” raised nearly $80,000 in crowdsourced donations to compete in the Sochi Winter Olympics. Like the original Jamaican team, they qualified. (In the early rounds of the two-man bobsled, they didn't do so well.)
Fitch spoke to Washington City Paper about the newest team and how they stack up against the original ensemble.
WCP: As you know, there’s a new Jamaican bobsled team that qualified for the Sochi Olympics. They’ve described themselves as "Cool Runnings, The Second Generation” and raised a lot of money to go to Sochi. Wasn’t the 1988 Jamaican bobsled team funded in part by you selling tee shirts your wife designed?
GF: The situation with the funding was, I spent about nine thousand dollars of my own money. Didn’t want to, but nobody wanted to sponsor the team … It didn’t come from the Donkey Kong or whatever that thing’s called, Bitcoin or whatever.
You mean Dogecoins, right? I also heard you helped contribute some money by selling the same tee shirts.
I figured I better go out and help. So I put together a website—originaljamaicabobsled.com—because I figured the original bobsled shirts, given there were so many knockoffs on the marketplace, would be appealing and people would buy them.
Do you see any parallels between this team and the original?
I think there are some. For one, the enthusiasm, the support for the team. When word hit the streets in Calgary [in 1988] that Jamaicans were trying the four [man bobsled]…I had heard 45,000 people were there to watch. You’ve also got the same kind of dedication and commitment that the guys I recruited had.
Do you think this most recent team could have been assembled without your role in forming the first team? It kind of started this whole cultural phenomenon.
Modesty aside, I would agree with that, because prior to that, you had an athlete or two or a team or two that came from a non-traditional country … this was the first time that a team from a non-traditional country was competitive. We beat ten teams in the two-man. Unfortunately, the movie Cool Runnings doesn’t show that. All it shows is the four-man. So yes, I’d like to think we sort of blazed a trail for other non-traditional countries … I mean, now you’ve got a bobsled team from American Samoa.
Let’s talk about Cool Runnings. I read you were personally offended by John Candy’s portrayal of you, where he played a down-on-his- luck bookie. Why do you think they chose to write you that way when it differed so much from your real life persona?
Because the entire script was completely different from real life. There were only two things from that movie that tracked real life. One was the crash. They basically took ABC footage. The other similarity was the scene in the movie where I’m showing—in this case, John Candy—is showing bobsled films to initiate these people, respective athletes, that had showed up to the Olympic bobsled trial…and after the film is over, replete with crashes, I turn the lights back on and half the audience had disappeared. Those were the only two things. Everything else was total fiction.
Was there ever a moment after the film debuted where you felt your image was out of your own control?
It was immediate. I didn’t have to wait for the premiere. I knew because the scriptwriters from Disney would call me and say, this is what happens here, we want to do this, and so on. And so I knew as they were writing the script that [my character] would be approached to coach the team as opposed to going out and forming the team. And then the character itself was very different. I knew it on day one. Actually, I knew it before day one when negotiating the contract with Disney. I said I’d like to have some editorial say in this thing, and they basically laughed at me and said, no you don’t. We know what we’re doing.
Has the film ever confused people about who you really are? Do people try to pin you to Candy’s character in Cool Runnings?
Yes. Many, many times. [They’d say] “you don’t look anything like John Candy. You must have lost a lot of weight. I understand you’re the mayor? I understand that you’re with a foreign service, and not a disgraced bobsledder?” Most of the time, it’s in a very joking, jovial way.
Did it come up during either of your mayoral elections in Warrenton?
Only in terms of describing who I was. They’d say, this candidate is a former diplomat, former Jamaican bobsled founder, yeah, in that sense.
Still, the movie became kind of a cult classic, especially among the millennial generation. Everyone knows what “Jamaican bobsled” means, even 26 years later. Still, you called the film’s cheesy, comedic tone “an embarrassment.” Do you at least take any pride in knowing at least you sort of helped spur on something that so many people can relate to on a cultural level?
I’m very proud. I certainly didn’t think about that going in. I was so obsessed and concentrated with not making any mistakes, having a good performance, and not being an embarrassment, et cetera, et cetera. But yes. On reflection, as I continue to see, quite surprisingly, that 10 years have gone by, 20 years have gone by, 25 years have gone by, and they’re still showing Cool Runnings and they’re still talking about Jamaican bobsled. And as I said earlier, looking at 20 countries that would never have been in the Winter Olympics, never even thought about it. I would like to think I might have inspired some of that.
Your last mayoral term ends this June. Any plans on spearheading yet another 2018 Jamaican bobsled team, maybe in 2018?
You don’t go back and replicate what you did. You’ve done it, it was successful, it led to other teams doing it, so quit while you’re ahead, right?