‘THE HOTTEST THING ON ICE’: Jamaican tourism bets on bobsled teams

When you think about it, Jamaica has many tourism touchstones – sun, sand, and Sandals, amongst them, not to the mention the famously friendly people. But more distinctly, visitors also think of Bob Marley/reggae music, Red Stripe and rum, Blue Mountain coffee and jerk seasoning, superb slang (irie, ya mon!), James Bond (or at least 007 author Ian Fleming who wrote the spy novels there), and, naturally, bobsleds!

The latter, of course, relates to the now legendary story of the 1988 Jamaican bobsled team – four athletes who had never seen snow – inexplicably qualifying to take part in the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary.

Such was the improbability – and renown – of the tale that it was turned into the 1993 Disney movie “Cool Runnings,” starring the beloved late Canadian comedian John Candy.

“I just want to tell you, everywhere I go in the world, a reference point is ‘Cool Runnings,’” Jamaican tourism minister Edmund Bartlett said at a virtual press event Friday. “It’s an amazing impact we made on the global scene, not just in entertainment and film but in giving a definition of Jamaica that lingers. People still see us as being that unique country that created a unique experience of bobsleighers who had never seen snow.”

(Ed. note: bobsled/bobsleigh are synonymous terms, the former predominantly used in North America).

And now with Jamaican athletes once again ready to intrigue the world by participating in bobsled disciplines (as well as alpine skiing for the first time) at the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing starting later this week, Jamaican tourism is primed once more to slide along on the ride.

Indeed, the ministry of tourism and industry partners (including Sandals) have even contributed J$3 million ($24,533) to the Jamaica Bobsleigh & Skeleton Federation to help support a sport that has amazingly become synonymous with the Caribbean nation.

Certainly, Jamaica is known for sport – particularly its renowned for its sprinters, and most notably Usain Bolt who carved out a career as the world’s undisputed fastest human being. And in 1998, the ‘Reggae Boyz’ mimicked the bobsled team, taking the World Cup of Soccer in France by storm as the Caribbean’s first English-speaking country to reach the final.

But it was the unlikely emergence of the Jamaican bobsled team in the ‘80s – winter athletes from a nation that trades on being an antidote to winter – that found its way into the global consciousness, and whose indomitable spirit and tenacity was captured in what has become a cult classic film.

1988 Bobsleigh team

And similar interest in this year’s team (which will compete in not one but three bobsled events) will clearly delight Jamaica tourism officials, who even unveiled an official team theme song – “Rocket Blaster” – on Friday, with culture and entertainment minister Olivia Grange declaring, “Jamaica will be the hottest thing on ice” at the Beijing Games.

But the participation of the bobsled boyz – and girlz – speaks to a larger issue, says Bartlett, namely the development and diversification of Jamaica’s tourism product.

“Entertainment and sport are going to be to mega pillars on which the new tourism is going to be built,” he adds. “Sport is going to be critical. We need to respond to people’s passions and build products around their passion points.”

In the meantime, Grange says Jamaica will take advantage of her nation’s outsize reputation on the international sporting scene to generate exposure and interest.

“Whenever there is a global sport event,” she says, “we can guarantee one thing: Jamaica will get great exposure – during, before and after the event. And we have been seeing that great exposure for Jamaica over the last few weeks as the world gets ready for the Winter Olympics… The stories about the extraordinary bobsleigh and skeleton representatives in the 2022 Games have been the greatest advertisement about everything we want the world to hear and see about Jamaica.”

Further, she observes, Jamaican athletes are “great ambassadors” for the country. “They may not be giving the explicit invitation for people to come to Jamaica,” she says, “but their presence on the world scene has caused so many people to ‘make it Jamaica.’ In their role as sports and cultural representatives, every single one of them has contributed meaningfully to Jamaica, especially in the areas of commerce, travel and tourism.”

Grange says her culture ministry supports 40 national sports federations in the country and has contributed J$70 million (approx. $572,500) to the bobsled team’s preparation for the Winter Games alone.

She adds that their success and profile is especially welcome this year as Jamaica celebrates its 60th anniversary of independence.

“Who could have imagined that our nation could have such an impact on sport and culture in such a short time,” exclaims Grange. “The (bobsled) teams are a reminder – and proof – that nothing is impossible. We don’t have no snow, but here we are, competing with the world’s best in winter sports!”

First published at Travel Industry Today