The Little-Remembered U.S. Virgin Islands Bobsled Team Was Way Worse than the Jamaicans

A Blog About the Olympic Games
Feb. 17 2014 7:41 PM

The Little-Remembered U.S. Virgin Islands Bobsled Team Was Way Worse than the Jamaicans

virgin-islands-bobsled
The 1988 U.S. Virgin Islands bobsled team in action.

Photo by Mike Powell/Getty Images

The story of the 1988 Jamaican bobsled team, dramatized in the mediocre 1993 Disney family comedy Cool Runnings, is a familiar one. But few people know that the Jamaicans weren’t the only unlikely bobsled team at the 1988 Calgary Games. A half-dozen warm-weather nations fielded bobsled teams that year. The unlikeliest of these may have been the team from the U.S. Virgin Islands, a bunch of wealthy middle-aged businessmen who hatched the idea at a cocktail party. Their story might be even better than the Jamaicans’.

The 1988 Calgary Games were the last gasp of enthusiastic amateur athleticism at the modern Olympics. Nearsighted British ski jumper “Eddie the Eagle” Edwards became famous for his inept performance on the ramp; by the opening ceremony, the Globe and Mail reported, he had already “broken a ski binding, got lost in the athletes' village, been locked out of a change room and missed two of his training jumps.” Elliot Archilla, a Puerto Rican biathlete, was chastised for “selling sweatshirts an hour after crossing the finish line.” His teammate, George Tucker, a 250-pound luger who was “considered a pest at the Lake Placid luge track,” drew notice after exchanging sharp words with a track worker who called him a “fat pig.”

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Yes, 1988 was a great year for Olympic tourism, and this was especially true in the bobsled. Willie Gault, a wide receiver for the Chicago Bears, served as an alternate for the U.S. team. Prince Albert of Monaco—known as “Big Al” in the Olympic Village—manned a sled for his nation. In addition to Jamaica and the U.S. Virgin Islands, Portugal, New Zealand, the Netherlands Antilles, and Mexico all fielded bobsled teams. The Mexican team comprised four brothers who worked together as waiters at a Dallas restaurant called La Cantina Laredo. “Are the other waiters rooting for you?” Detroit Free Press columnist Mitch Albom asked one of the brothers at the time. “Yes,” he said. “They’re making a lot better tips without the four of us around.”

The U.S. Virgin Islanders were perhaps the unlikeliest bobsledders of the bunch. Their Olympic journey began at a cocktail party—“Cocktail parties are the hub of existence in St. Thomas,” one of the competitors’ wives informed the Washington Post’s Henry Allen—when John Foster, a businessman who had represented the U.S. Virgin Islands three times in sailing at the Summer Olympics, asked a hotelier named Christopher Sharpless if he had ever tried bobsledding. He hadn’t, but he was up for the challenge, and the two men booked a trip to Lake Placid, where they signed up for an “Introduction to Bobsledding” class. After returning to the islands, they recruited some friends, purchased some sleds, and assembled a team.

“We got lots of negative reaction from the [U.S. Virgin Islands’] summer Olympic team at first,” team member Harvey Hook told the St. Petersburg Times in 1994. “They were afraid we would disgrace the island by making fools of ourselves.” You couldn’t blame the Summer Olympians for thinking that. Hook, a Maryland native, was 52 years old at the start of the 1988 Olympics. John Reeve and John Foster, who served as driver and brakeman for one of the team’s two sleds, were 50 and 49 respectively. Sharpless, who rode on Hook’s sled, was a mere 42.

The bobsledders arrived in Calgary toting two $10,000 Italian bobsleds that had been painted black with palm trees, and wearing parkas they’d purchased at Sears. Their first turn on the Olympic course came as a bit of a shock. “We have a sled with wheels; we push it on the road next to the beach to practice starts—it looks sort of like a bed, actually,” Harvey Hook told the Washington Post after one of the team’s training runs. “I’m too old to be doing this.” Realizing they had little chance at a medal, the Virgin Islanders instead came up with something called the Caribbean Cup, a silver trophy that would go to the warm-weather nation whose squad posted the best times. (Bulgaria, which can get very cold indeed, also competed for the Cup, because “they were so keen on the idea, we decided to let them in anyhow,” said John Reeve.)

Were they any good? Stephen Brunt of the Globe and Mail likened the novice bobsledders’ performance to “a bus banging down a bowling alley,” and while the comparison may have been cruel, it wasn’t inaccurate. The 50-year-olds were lousy bobsledders, slow out of the gate and unused to the rigors of international competition. The U.S. Virgin Islands’ No. 1 sled, driven by Reeve and Foster, finished in last place in the two-man race, 38th out of 38 teams. The other sled did slightly better, finishing 35th, fourth from the bottom, ahead of both Mexican squads. The Jamaican team immortalized in Cool Runnings came in 30th, 7.15 seconds ahead of the slowest Virgin Islands sled. If the Jamaicans had themselves gone 7.15 seconds faster, they would have finished in eighth place, ahead of a sled from the Soviet Union. This gives you a sense of how bumbling the Virgin Islanders were: They made the Jamaicans look like an Eastern Bloc superpower.

Prince Albert of Monaco, by the way, came in a respectable 25th, though he later told the press that “I would have liked to have won the Caribbean Cup.” (The Cup went to New Zealand, which tied for 20th place.) All of these underdogs were a gift for the Olympic media, but a bit of an annoyance for the serious bobsled contenders, many of whom worried that the newbies’ sloppy work was damaging the track and affecting the good racers’ speed. Chief among the Virgin Islanders’ antagonists was East German bobsledder Wolfgang Hoppe. “When you get as many inexperienced drivers in a race as we have here, it hurts the experienced drivers,” Hoppe told the media. “Ideally, there should only be a maximum of 25 to 30 sleds in a competition of this magnitude.”

And yet while the 1988 sideshow may have been bad for serious bobsledders, it was undoubtedly a good thing for the sport of bobsledding, which benefitted from the publicity surrounding all the new teams. According to Harvey Hook, the International Federation of Bobsled Teams told the Virgin Islands squad that “the Virgin Islands and Jamaica put the sport on the map.”

But while everybody remembers the Jamaicans, the Virgin Islanders’ exploits have mostly been forgotten. The Virgin Islands bobsled team continued to compete, quite ineptly, through the 2002 Winter Games. It is now defunct, leaving little trace of its existence aside from a small trove of memorabilia on eBay: an official Virgin Islands bobsled team T-shirt on eBay, as well as a couple of Olympic bobsled pins. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got some bidding to do.

Justin Peters is a writer for Slate. He is working on a book about Aaron Swartz, copyright, and the rise of “free culture.” Email him at justintrevett@fastmail.fm.

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