Winter Olympics: Lillehammer '94: Eccentric games of the winter wannabees: Stephen Brenkley meets the bobbers winning their battle for recognition

Click to follow
The Independent Online
SOMEWHERE up a Norwegian mountain with banks of snow almost touching the sky Dudley Stokes delivered his considered verdict on the West Indies cricket team. 'We're not as good as we were,' the elegant Jamaican said. 'We haven't got the bowling.'

Not that he was overly concerned. While he admires cricket and cricketers his mind was less on the state of the pitch at Sabina Park than the surface at Hunderfossen, scene of the Olympic bobsleigh. Stokes is his country's bobsleigh driver and driving force, a singular man in a country which has not quite produced as many bobbers as bowlers, or not yet.

There appears to be no earthly reason why he should have taken up his sport, but his team's presence in Lillehammer along with a few other individuals who sought out the snow rather than the other way round, is evidence that the Games are indeed for all.

He has the lean, loose athletic build of his compatriot Michael Holding and bowled briefly when he studied in England. 'They assumed I was a fast bowler because of where I came from. I turned my arm over for a couple of years and then they discovered I was a fraud,' he said.

Fraudulence is not an allegation that can be made against the Jamaican team's bobsleighing ability; nor can they be described as 'not as good as they were'. Stokes and his party in Lillehammer start both two-man and four-man events with a realistic aim of finishing in the top 20. If they succeed it would be like Norway qualifying for the cricket World Cup finals.

Stokes, 31, has travelled far since he first had the crazy idea of forming a bob team from the sun- drenched, snow-free island in the mid-Eighties, though not actually as far down bob runs as he would have liked. From being makeweight, popular jokers who sold T- shirts and reggae records to finance their trip to Calgary in 1988, the Jamaicans have advanced to earn the respect and friendship of men from places where snow and the sports played in them are as much part of early life as cradles.

This is why he views Cool Runnings with healthy though not ungrateful scepticism. Cool Runnings is the uproarious comedy film about the embryonic bobbers that will be showing at your local picture palace very soon. It is so uproarious as to obscure Stokes's serious intent. 'We had to work long and hard to get accepted and to start having reasonably high placings,' he said. 'Perhaps the film will make us look pretty silly again in the eyes of the world.'

He understands there are commercial considerations at stake here - Hollywood perhaps still has the edge in this regard on the Olympic movement - and he and his team could benefit. The film has encouraged Red Stripe to sponsor them, which will lead to more time on the snow, which in turn could mean attention being attracted by genuine success.

'Our sled is as good as most of the rest,' Stokes said. 'I think it's been prepared as well, and on this course at Lillehammer that is as crucial as getting a good start. What we want is more runs and sponsorship money as a result of the film could give us that.'

It is no more than this hugely determined man deserves. The true, non-Hollywood Cool Runnings story, still a mightily uplifting one, is that after the first flush of 1988 novelty wore off nobody wanted to know. Even their Calgary thunder was stolen by a man who appears in the official record of the Olympiad as Edwards, Michael (GB). 'Eddie the Eagle' has talked a good game since, and while his decline into anonymity may not be entirely his own fault it is the Jamaicans who are now flying. That is a testament to their resilience. After Calgary the mood among others was that they had been there, done their bit for the Olympic ideal and now it was time for the next story. Move along, Dudley. Which is not the way Dudley saw it.

'Only my brother (Nelson) and I retained any interest,' he said. 'There was nothing from anywhere else and I mean nothing in terms of encouragement or enthusiasm. But I started bobsleighing not out of a sense of fun but because I thought I could succeed. I had flown helicopters, I had good hand-eye co-ordination. Of course, I've since found out there are a million other things and I'm still learning about those. But I wasn't giving up easily.'

He and Nelson recruited a new team. They went to Albertville, were 25th in the two-man and 36th in the four-man and the brothers are now at their third Olympics. This is the best-prepared Jamaican team of all. Their great strength is their fleetness of foot. Jerome Lewis and Wayne Thomas are tall, strong and quick, Nelson and Ricky McIntosh have times for the 100 metres of 10.19sec and 10.42sec respectively. Rapid movement at the top of the run is no trouble.

The bobsleigh run at Hunderfossen, artificially frozen, is 1,365 metres long with concrete sides. It is shaped like a paper clip which has been seriously tampered with while you were talking on the phone. To walk round it, were it not for the small matter of all the white stuff, it could be a maze in an English country house garden. To ride down its savagely twisting drop of 120 metres is certainly nothing like that.

In his two-man practice run, Dudley Stokes, to the untrained observer, seemed perfectly balanced, poised and controlled. This may be partly because the untrained observer can see nothing of the bob as it whooshes at, say, 130mph. The man himself was less pleased. He wandered track side and sat down. He had a few words with the Swiss coach of the Canadian team, a man of vast experience. He had rushed his movements apparently. He had to be less hasty, more patient. Dudley listened to his words and repeated them and by the look on the Swiss face you knew he felt he was speaking to Stokes as a sporting equal and not some bloke who should be on a sun-kissed beach. 'It's a wonderful fraternity in bobsleighing,' Stokes said as he surveyed his opponents coming down the run. 'We're just part of it now. And I don't think the film will change that too much among these guys.'

Stokes will be around on the slopes a while yet. His next target is the world championships in 1995 and Ricky McIntosh spoke of winning an Olympic bob medal. Dudley was not around at the time but Ricky, the shortest of the quartet, said it was in their minds. 'We want to improve here, then work some more on our starting technique and keep on making progress. We're confident we have something left yet.'

They were not the first black athletes to appear in a winter Olympics. That honour, an unconscionably long time in arriving, went to Jeff Godley and Willie Davenport, the former 110m hurdles summer Olympics gold medallist, who were in the US bob at Lake Placid in 1980. But the Jamaican lads could be not only the most enduring but the most successful.

DESPITE their urge for snow and more of it, they are, sensibly one feels, departing for Jamaica once their present exertions are finished. What Dudley Stokes and his chums have given to the Olympic Games already is not to be underestimated. It is not so much the simple taking part as the human spirit, the will to do it no matter how unlikely or plain daft.

Take, for instance, Anne Abernathy, 30th in the women's luge at the age of 40 and the oldest female participant in Lillehammer. She was doing this reckless act on behalf of the Virgin Islands, having been born in Florida. She has no children but is labelled the grandma of the luge. Anne left after her four trips down the slopes, but the reckoning is she will back next time.

Take also the 32-year-old Olympic debutant Rusiata Rogoyawa, of Fiji. He took part in the 10-kilometre cross-country ski- ing race on Thursday. He was 88th out of 88 in 38 minutes, 14 minutes behind the winner and six behind the 87th man. He had no known form going into the event and his was a performance to rival that of Edwards for failing to trouble the leader board.

Take, too, any freestyle skier from anywhere. This surely was not meant to be practised by anybody. There is not even the

because-it's-there excuse that mountaineers trot out. Jilly Curry, Britain's representative in the discipline, said that winter somersaulting after skiing down a mountain on to a vaulting horse was the most exhilarating feeling she had known. It remained that way.

'I started normal skiing and just went on to this,' she said. She bridled at the suggestion that jumping 15 feet in the air with skis might be lots of things but exhilarating probably wasn't one of them. 'You really don't know till you try it,' she said. Apart from the jumping discipline, freestyle consists of jumps and moguls in which the competitors ski down a sheer drop with huge boils on it. Teams, not surprisingly, have resident chiropractors.

Maybe we are far from the days of Kenyan downhill skiers - though they will doubtless flourish if the climatological shift continues at its present rate - but there are Greek competitors in abundance. The Sebalds, American-born Gregory and wife Glenda, are respectively in the bobsleigh and luge.

The computer records in Lillehammer do not go back that far but there was probably no bobsleighing in the Ancient Greek Games. Zeus may be laughing as he sharpens his skates, ready for a comeback.

(Photograph omitted)