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Jamaican bobsledders having fun, but they're serious athletes too

Dudley Stokes, a helicopter pilot with the Jamaican army, had his interest in bobsledding piqued by a simple discovery. ``What fired up my imagination was when I learned this thing had to be driven,'' he told reporters at the Winter Olympic press center here. ``I thought it was like a roller coaster ride.''

There is a refreshing athletic innocence about Capt. Stokes and his teammates on the Jamaican bobsled team. But some wonder if virtual novices, whether from Jamaica, Mexico, or the US Virgin Islands, really belong in the company of the world's top sliders.

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The fact is, they didn't simply show up. They had to acquire a modicum of international experience, and did so training and racing in Calgary, Lake Placid, N.Y., and Igles, Austria during the past four or five months.

Furthermore, since bobsleds don't share the track, rookies don't endanger other competitors. And in fact the Jamaican team didn't do all that badly, beating out sleds from several other countries in finishing 30th out of 41 entries in the two-man event that concluded Monday.

The novelty of it all has attracted lots of attention. ``I'm somewhat disturbed, though, that the underlying feeling is that we are not serious athletes,'' says Stokes. ``There are no jokers on this team.''

No, this isn't Saturday Night Live on sled runners, but it is a group that knows how to enjoy life in the refrigerated fast lane.

They've managed to put a little fun into these Olympics, not only with their reggae theme song, ``Hobbin and a Bobbin,'' but also with the sale of Jamaica Bobsleigh Team sweatshirts and T-shirts, which are going like hotcakes. Team members carry around a supply of shirts and have several Calgary outlets.

The motif has a sled zipping over a beach into the ocean.

Such marketing is an example of creative financing, a requirement in funding an alien winter pursuit in the heart of the tropics and becoming the first athletes to represent their country in the Winter Games .

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The inspiration to form this logic-defying bunch was that of American business consultant George Fitch, a former diplomat with close ties to Jamaica who says he has sunk about $50,000 into the team's development.

Fitch was struck by the similarity between bobsledding and Jamaican push cart races, in which speeds of 55-to-60 m.p.h. are reached hurtling down the winding roads on the Blue Mountains outside Kingston.

While none of the Jamaican sledders has a cart-racing background, brakeman Devon Harris says his present pursuit strikes him as the safer of the two.

``The push carts can run over the side of a cliff,'' he explains. At least here he can count on staying in the icy chute that snakes around Canada Olympic Park.

Jamaica is noted as a producer of world-class sprinters, and Fitch felt this would make a good athletic match for bobsledding, where great importance is placed on the push start.

``It's very easy to make an athlete into a bobsledder,'' says Howard Siler, the team's coach and a former US Olympian from Lake Placid.

First, of course, you must reel in some athletes, so after Fitch got the approval of Jamaica's sports officials, he posted tryout notices at athletic clubs around the country. He also engaged some recruiting help from the Jamaica Defense Forces.

Besides Stokes and Harris, who compete in both the two- and four-man events, infantry signalman and sprint champion Michael White is also on a special military leave of absence.

Other members are Caswell Allen, a college student and sprint champion, and Freddie Powell, a part-time electrician and reggae singer who led the contingent in some fund-raising vocalizing at a local restaurant.

Each team member scored high on the same athletic test administered to prospective American sledders. Still, that won't tell whether a guy can cope with the sport's blinding speed and hair-raising rides.

``The fear factor is a problem,'' says Siler. ``That you can sort out after the first day.''

The survivors are those like Powell, who, asked how his first ride was, simply replied, ``Nice.''

The group's philosopher is Stokes, who puts his pilot training to work as driver of both sleds. He denies being a daredevil, and when asked if he's tried hang-gliding, cracks, ``No, I'm a firm believer in engines.''

Except on icy bobsled tracks, where he claims ``the sled pretty much got itself to the bottom'' on his very first trip, started some halfway up the course.

Comparing his avocation and vocation, he says, ``The concentration demanded in that one minute you're on the run far outweighs that required in your average flying. Once that bob gets going, I don't have any conscious thoughts that I can stand up afterwards and say, `I thought this or I thought that.' Concentration has to be so intense, that I've gotten to the bottom and been beat up pretty bad and not known until many minutes afterwards.''

But despite the occasioanal physical scrapes to which any sledder subjects himself, Stokes refuses to let himself be paralyzed by an over-concern for self-preservation.

``If you become too timid in life you miss it,'' he observes. ``Ian Fleming wrote in James Bond, `I'll not waste my days in trying to prolong them.' I think that's the bottom line of my philosophy in life''

From all appearances, this reflects the go-for-it attitude of all the hobbin and a bobbin, joy-producing Jamaican sledders.

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