Devon ‘Pele’ Harris: Member of Jamaica’s first Bobsled team, which competed in:
1988 Winter Olympics, Calgary, Canada
1992 Winter Olympics, Albertville, France
1998 Winter Olympics, Nagano, Japan
My interview this month has to do with the accomplishment that astounded the world, but not us Jamaicans of course, as we know that there is nothing we cannot do. That feat was the momentous occasion of our tropical island manning an Olympic team in the winter-Olympic event, as in a snow featured sport. I was curious to know how all this came into being and what sort of person would sign on to do something this different.
Meet Devon Harris, Jamaican extraordinaire. A graduate of Ardenne High School, as well as the prestigious Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, England, Devon sat down to answer my many questions.
Q: How did you get the nickname ‘Pele’?
A: Football was my first love. One day during PE class while at Drews Ave Primary School, I believe the football gods touched me because nobody could get the ball from me. Some older boys who were watching started to call me ‘Pele’ while others called me ‘Blacka’. Eventually they started calling me ‘Black Pele’. The name followed me to high school where they dropped the black (the real Pele was black) and simply called me ‘Pele’
Q: So Devon, how does a young man go from being a track star in High School to an Army Officer and then lo and behold a bobsledder?
A: Those were all goals that I had…sort of. I became a “track star” in school because that was the one way I could truly distinguish myself. Academically, I was in the middle of the pack, in football I was one of a handful…there were a few that were better; but on the track there was only one ‘Pele], me. Soon after I started running track I crafted my dream to be in the Olympics. My goal was to represent Jamaica in LA ’84 in the 800m & 1500 m events. That didn’t happen, but four years later I fulfilled the dream of being an Olympian at the Calgary Games.
I’ve always wanted to be a soldier. That seed was planted in my head by my late grandmother who regaled me with stories of these incredible feats which soldiers would perform. I think I was born with this thing inside of me that says that if its tough and different, then that’s what I should do. My decision to enlist in the officer corps stemmed partly from that. The more practical common sense reason was that it was the quickest way out of the ghetto.
Q: And if that was not a real leap, let us factor in the fact that you are Jamaican? What were you all drinking or should I say smoking, the night all this came into being? Were you all sitting up in Newcastle, and mistook the fog for snow, and bingo, Winter Olympians were born? Explain from start to finish the story behind the team?
A: The idea for the team was that of two Americans George Fitch and William Maloney who had business and family connections in Jamaica. They saw the pushcart derby and thought it looked like bobsledding except for the ice. Because the start is such an important part of the race and Jamaica had so many sprinters, they thought they would recruit some of the summer Olympic athletes but those guys weren’t biting on the idea. They then came to the army and pitched the idea to Col Ken Barnes (father of English football player John Barnes).
Of course I was in the JDF at the time. I first learnt of the idea from a weekly publication in the army called “Force Orders”. This was early Sept 87 and it was calling for those who wished to “undergo rigorous and dangerous training ” to represent Jamaica in the Olympics in Feb 1988 in Calgary to make themselves known. Needless to say I thought that it was the most ridiculous idea ever conceived by man.
At the same time I had resumed my early morning runs. I had completed my officer training at Sandhurst in Aug ’86 and was recovering from a broken ankle sustained in a parachute accident. I was hoping to get good enough to run at the Seoul Games in “88. As fate would have it I ran in a cross-country event, finished 14th from 40 and shocked everybody. Nobody knew that I was that fit because limping around barracks from a broken ankle isn’t the picture of fitness. In keeping with the philosophy that Officers must always participate, My Colonel, Alan Douglas told me to go to the bobsled team trials. That’s when I started to give the idea serious thought and although I didn’t think I had reached Olympic caliber in my fitness, decided that somehow, someway I had to make the team.
We had the team selections at the National Stadium in September. Each participant had to do a series of sprints, jumps, throwing a shot putt and pushing a makeshift sled to test speed and explosiveness. You were scored on your performance. Most of us were from the JDF. In fact the top 7 of the top ten were army. I found it quite competitive. There was one guy who was clearly making the team, Michael White, A private from the National Reserves. He was the fastest. From my estimation I was somewhere in the region of 5 or 6. Then came the push test and although I didn’t know anything about bobsledding, I knew that if there were one all-important test, this would be it. It turned out that I had the fastest push time.
The original four, Dudley Stokes, a Capt from the JDF Air Wing, Michael White who I mentioned before, Samuel Clayton an Engineer from the railway and myself a Lieutenant in the Second Battalion went to Lake Placid New York for a weekend to meet the coach, Howard Siler. From there, on to Calgary for about six weeks, then to Innsbruck, Austria for a month, then home for Christmas. Sammy left the program then. January ’88 we went back to Lake Placid and were joined by two other guys Caswell Allen a student at CAST and Freddy Powell, a “reggae singer” from Junction St. Elizabeth. From there it was on to Calgary for the Games. Freddy was naturally strong but not an athlete by any stretch of the imagination. Because of his claim to be a reggae singer he was selected for his PR value. Caswell and I were actually at Ardenne together. He fell on the push track one day and got hurt and so Chris Stokes joined the team as the fourth person on the sled. This is a feat that was lost in the movie. Chris had less than one week of bobsled training a yet we pushed the 7th fastest time on the third heat and now famous heat.
Q: How closely did the movie mirror the reality?
A. The movie did a good job in depicting the spirit of the team as underdogs fighting to overcome. Yes! There was a bobsled team from Jamaica. We had trouble getting sponsorship and we crashed in the Olympics in Calgary. That’s pretty much it.
Q: Tell us a little bit about the movie production.
A: In 1998 we made several trips to New York talking to the writers about our experience, but we knew that they wanted to do a movie that depicted more of the stereotypical view of Jamaicans. It took almost 5 yrs before the movie was finally filmed. It was February 1993 when George Fitch called me and told that they were filming in Calgary. I was on set for a week working mostly with the stunt men, but that was pretty much the extent of our involvement.
Q: How were you guys greeted at your first event?
A: Our first time on ice was in Calgary in Oct ’87. That’s when the interest from the press started pouring in. Our first race was a regional race in Austria ” The Tirol Cup”. The race was named for the Tirol region of Austria and was primarily for bobsled club teams most of which also had athletes who competed on the international level. It would be like having a club level football competition in western Jamaica where many of the teams have players who play on the international level and the rules does not prevent international teams from entering as well.
It was tough for us getting in the sync of the race. People had their sleds in the way and it was difficult for us to move ours in the proper position. I am not sure if they did that deliberately or it was just our inexperience.
Q: You say you lived in the ghetto? Would you care to be a bit more specific re location?
A: I grew up on Sunrise Drive in Olympic Gardens. Most people know it has Waterhouse or more notoriously as Firehouse because it was so volatile, especially back in the late 70’s to mid 80’s
Q: Being from the ‘ghetto’ as you say, how did you make that step to a career in the JDF… after all there is the belief that residents of ghetto communities have an inherent distaste for law enforcement of any type?
A: It is a misconception and something that I constantly reminded myself of when I was in the JDF and conducting operations in Waterhouse and other ghetto areas around Kingston. There is undoubtedly an element that abhors the law and anything that represents it, but the vast majority of people are law abiding. My recollection growing up was that people were happy to see patrols in the area because that meant that there would be some semblance of peace. Ghetto people like all poor and overlooked people, strive for survival, opportunity and significance. On a deeper level that’s what my army career was about. I developed the desire to be a soldier during the first four or five years of my life that I spent with my grandmother in Haughton, St Elizabeth. Growing up in Waterhouse was no piece of cake. I was desperate for a way to “escape”. I followed my heart into the army and stretched a little further up the ladder to the officer corps. Survival, opportunity and significance
Q: What was the team’s placing in that first Olympic attempt? We have the movie version but what was the reality?
A: I believe we finished 28th in the two man event. In the four- man event after blasting off the top of the hill with the 7th fastest start time, we crashed in a spectacular fashion, only in a way that Jamaicans could. In the movie they showed bolts coming loose on the sled, but the reality is that it was driver’s error. We were an inexperienced team playing in the big arena.
Q: What is your overall opinion of the decision to stage such a team and the feasibility of our continued presence in the event?
A: My first reaction was that it was an absurd idea but that changed quickly after my Commanding Officer told me to go to the team trials. Our team changed not just Jamaican sport history but world sport history, and as it turned out it has impacted people from all over the world, way beyond the sporting arena. At a recent speaking engagement, one of the audience members afterwards told me that for the longest while his 10 yr old daughter wanted to learn to play the drums and after watching Cool Runnings was so inspired by our story, that she went out and started lessons. There are so many stories like that. There is no doubt in my mind that Jamaica has the athletic talent to produce Olympic Bobsled champions. Since Calgary the team has had some noteworthy achievements. In Lilihammer, the four man team finished in 14th place beating the United States, one French and one Italian sled. We have won the world push championship, and we had the fastest start at the SLC Olympics in the two man event, to name a few. The challenge is finding the funding for the team. I am aware that the Jamaica Bobsleigh Federation is currently exploring some options but I don’t know exactly what they are.
Q: You did not go back to the military, and now spend your time as a motivational speaker among other endeavours. In looking back, do you see this chance event as detouring the path of your life, and in what way has it effected any change?
A: Actually I did go back to the military. I didn’t return to civilian life until December 1992 after my second Olympics. I didn’t readily appreciate the impact bobsledding had had on my life. I used to be away bobsledding, return to Jamaica, put my bobsled uniform away and don my army uniform, back to soldiering without skipping a beat. Looking back, I realize that the day I got selected to the team was definitely a defining moment. There is a quote that I love that says ” Go as far as you can see and when you get there you’ll see further“. Growing up in Olympic Gardens I couldn’t see beyond the dizzy heights of the officer corps in the JDF. As I started traveling more extensively with the team and became more exposed, I started to see that there was another big wide world out there with unlimited opportunities. It was a huge risk even considering leaving the security of a commission in the army. As they say ” three meals a day, no wife to obey“…it doesn’t get much better than that. As a Jamaican Bobsledder the lesson in risk taking was strongly reinforced in me and so I took the leap of faith and left the army. One of the best decisions I ever made.
Q: Do you guys get together or even maintain contact?
A: I saw Dudley and Chris last December in Los Angeles. We were honored with the ‘Trail Blazer’ award by the Jamaica Cultural Alliance (www.jamaicaculture.org). Michael and I lost touch a few years ago.
Q: Incidentally, was there any reaction from other Caribbean islands re your advent into the winter side of the Olympic movement? Are we the only island to date, to stage such a team or any team in any other event in the winter Olympics?
A: There is much camaraderie and a healthy rivalry between us. In Nagano, after watching the tapes of the first day of competition I gave the ‘Trini’ brakeman some advice. Needless to say he took it and had a really nice start time. There was no chance of him beating my time, but he came back to the top of hill talking trash. Also, although he just missed qualifying for the games, my former brakeman from the Albertville team, Ricky McIntosh started competing in the skeleton. That’s the sport where you lie on your stomach and go head first down the bobsled track. “I tink im lick im head in one of dem bobsled crashes.”
The Netherland Antilles also had a team but I haven’t seen them on the circuit for years and although not a Caribbean Island, Mexico also has a team.
Q: Give us an update on the post 1988 teams.
A: The Albertville team featured the four guys who competed on the sled in Calgary plus Ricky McIntosh who was then a student at GC Foster College, Patrick Robinson of Alcan, Milton Hart and John McFarlane who were both members of the JDF. At those Games we had two 2 -man sleds and one 4 -man sled. Dudley and Chris competed on the first and Ricky and I on the second. The 4- man saw Dudley, Chris, Michael and Ricky competing. Patrick, Milton and John were alternates. The Lillihammer team retained the Stokes brothers and Ricky. They were joined by Winston Watt and Jerome Lewis of the JDF and Wayne Thomas of Alcan. The 1998 team had the Stokes, McIntosh, Watt and Thomas, comprising the 4- man team and myself. Michael Morgan of Alcan and Jason Morris of the JDF AW comprised the 2- man team rolled into one.
Q: You had the opportunity and you took it and what has been the end result? Separate and apart from the ‘Cool Runnings’ movie, what other opportunities have come your way?
A: Above all personal growth and the knowledge and reassurance that you can achieve anything that you put your mind to. I fulfilled my dream of being in the army and of competing in not one but three Olympic games. I’ve had the good fortune of acting in radio and TV commercials between 1998 and 2002 and of course what I am doing now is an incredible opportunity as well. I have spoken all across the US including Alaska, and also in New Zealand, St. Lucia, Bermuda and Jamaica
Q: So what does Devon Harris Olympian pioneer do now, today, since the heady days of celebrity?
A: First and foremost I am a husband to my wife Nicole and my sons Devon (15), Brandon (7) and daughter, Yanitza (8). Career wise, over the last five years I ‘ve been a keynote speaker and worship facilitator, a Personal Financial Analyst and I now adding the finishing touches to a children’s book about the lessons learned from the Jamaica Bobsled experience entitled “Yes, I can.”
Q: Are you involved in the Olympic movement in Jamaica? Incidentally, in the aftermath what was the reaction by the Summer Olympians? After all we are renowned for our track and field athletes but you guys took celebrity to another level. Did you meet with any resentment?
A: I am not currently involved in the Olympic movement back home but it is only a matter of time before that changes. With regards to the first team and we are regarded, I believe we remain a source of admiration for former Olympians including the ones we competed against and also a source of inspiration to future ones. There is definitely a healthy dose of respect for both the first team and the current one. I am not sure how we are viewed by the Summer Olympians, as I haven’t had a chance to interact with them.
Q: What is in the future for Devon?
A: I see myself in the very near future being a world -renowned speaker and writer, and also the brainchild behind a humanitarian organization bringing hope and opportunity to kids across the globe.