The year of ooh-aah, Jamaaaica!

With the World Cup and Winter Olympics approaching the sports- mad island has become even more so, reports Phil Davison in Kingston
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The Independent Online
Jamaicans who tuned into breakfast TV on Friday, the morning after their country's general elections, got no results, even though the outcome was known. Both national TV channels opened by going straight to the England- West Indies one-day cricket final in Sharjah.

The election results were announced later in the day, and no one really seemed to mind. For many, if not most Jamaicans, sport is more important than politics. And it's no longer just a question of cricket.

Many believe the Prime Minister, PJ Patterson, who retained power on Thursday, called the general election at two weeks' notice to cash in on national euphoria over the national football side's qualifiation for the World Cup. A home draw against Mexico last month put Jamaica through and united Jamaicans as never before.

In case anyone forgot him, Mr Patterson did not hesitate - minutes after the final whistle - to announce a national holiday the day following the match. The crowd went wild. All three leading parties used footage of cheering football fans and goals by the Jamaican team - nicknamed The Reggae Boyz - to attract support during their campaigns.

With the election over, Jamaicans seem less concerned with the Prime Minister's plans than with the World Cup in France next June and February's Winter Olympics in Japan, where Jamaica's once-mocked but brave bobsled team will be competing.

The island's first bobsled team was immortalised in the movie Cool Runnings, with the late John Candy playing their coach, telling the story of their attempt to qualify for the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary against all the odds. Their biggest problem was where to get hold of a sled. They don't make a lot of those in Jamaica.

With Jamaica deep in debt and state money for sport scarce, the race is now on for sponsorship. Oddly enough, American Airlines was first to see the publicity potential of the Reggae Boyz, ahead of the national carrier, Air Jamaica. AA will be their main sponsor in France, with the airline's logo on their training kit. Kentucky Fried Chicken will also be financing them, while the local food company Grac Kennedy will ship their favoured meals - mainly fish and chicken - to their training headquarters in Chaumont. The Italian company Kappa will provide their gold, green and black strips.

Reflecting its boss's love of football and belief that the team's dancing image will be good for tourism, Air Jamaica has now come forward with a sponsorship offer, based on a percentage of ticket sales from fans flying to France. "The Reggae Boyz have brought so much passion and pride to the country but these boys are not paid as much as players in most countries," said Air Jamaica's chief, Gordon "Butch" Stewart.

One of Stewart's other companies, the Sandals hotel and resort chain, will be sponsoring the Jamaica bobsled team at the upcoming Winter Olympics, providing all their equipment and adding $50,000 for expenses. That should ensure they will not be the butt of the jokes they suffered in Calgary.

"The bobsledders have done so much to bring a happy profile to Jamaica," said Stewart. "We have lost our way with exports. But sports and music can promote products and tourism. Look at the publicity the Reggae Boyz got in England, where people are accustomed to seeing the negative aspects of Jamaica. The Boyz have played a major role in showing a nation happy with itself. That can only be good for us."

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