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From Calgary Olympics to Warrenton mayor’s office

Tuesday, Feb. 18 | By Jonathan Hunley
Warrenton Mayor George Fitch recounts his role in recruiting and promoting Jamaica's bobsled team for the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary. Fauquier Times Staff Photo/Randy Litzinger
The two-man Jamaican bobsled team at the 1988 winter games. They fared better than the four-man Jamaican team, but they weren't portrayed in the Disney movie "Cool Runnings" as the four-man team was. Courtesy of George Fitch
UPDATED: The Jamaican bobsled team didn't fare well in two heats, but they've been making quite an impression in Sochi.

***

It was a tale fit for a movie.

Problem was, the movie, Disney's "Cool Runnings," didn't quite get everything correct.

But that's only part of the story.

At the beginning is Warrenton Mayor George Fitch, though that wasn't the title he had then.

He wasn't touting energy independence, as he is now, or running for governor, for that matter.

All of that would come later.

First, there was bobsledding.


***

Well, OK, that wasn't absolutely first in Fitch's life.

Before bobsledding, there was his international trade work on behalf of the U.S. government.

Fitch worked for the State Department, and then for the Foreign Commercial Service.

While at FCS, Fitch helped to foster trade partnerships as part of President Ronald Reagan's Caribbean Basin Initiative.

Then when Jamaican Prime Minister Edward Seaga asked Reagan for specific help on the CBI, the Commerce Department sent Fitch to Kingston.

From there, Fitch was sent to Paris as a commercial attache.

But he returned to Kingston to attend a wedding in July 1987, "and that's where it all started."

He and his old tennis buddy, Col. Ken Barnes of the Jamaican military, were talking about how the nation's athletes would fare in the next summer Olympics.

But Fitch wanted to know what the Jamaicans planned for the 1988 winter games in Calgary.

Barnes' answer? Nothing.


***

Fitch wasn't satisfied. A good athlete should be able to compete in any discipline, he said.

So he pondered several winter sports and decided that bobsledding would be a good fit for the Jamaicans.

Half of the sport is basically how quickly a 600-pound sled can be pushed before the participants jump in, Fitch figured, which meant he needed competitors fleet of foot.

Recruiting wasn't easy, though. Many Olympic-quality athletes didn't want to ruin their chances of competing in the summer games should they get hurt in the winter sport.

When Fitch held a meeting for prospective bobsledders, many took off quickly when they saw videos of crashes, for example.

Barnes, though, led Fitch to the Jamaica Defense Force.

"He was the only one in Jamaica who believed I could pull this off," Fitch recalled this week.

Barnes secured the services of champion runners Michael White and Devon Harris.

And for a sled driver, Fitch needed someone with good hand-eye coordination. That turned out to be helicopter pilot Dudley Stokes.

Barnes' notion was that a good showing in bobsledding would help to counter bad publicity related to drug violence in Jamaica.

If, that is, the team didn't finish dead last at Calgary.

"We're not going to make a fool of ourselves," he told Fitch.

Of course, there was a distinct possibility that Fitch could make a fool of himself, too. Or be lampooned as the racial stereotype of a white American guy exploiting Jamaican citizens.

Oh, and there was the $92,000 of his own money that he would spend on the team.

"I was really into it," Fitch said.

To stop that financial bleeding, Fitch's wife, Patricia Blazy Fitch, designed a T-shirt celebrating the team. And it was a hit.

"At one count, there were 15 knockoffs," George Fitch said.


***

The team proved a hit, as well. Spectators weren't shy about showing their support.

"We were No. 2 on the noise meter, behind Canada," Fitch said.

Fitch even participated in the opening ceremonies. As far as he knows, he's the only foreign citizen ever to head another country's Olympic delegation.

In the two-man sled competition, the Jamaicans fared well, beating 10 other squads.

So Fitch figured it was time to bask in the glory of making Olympic history.

His team had other ideas.

Though they hadn't prepared for the four-man competition, and didn't even have a four-man sled, they convinced Fitch to let them compete in those races.

There was also the fact that the team's numbers had dwindled to only three, as one member had gone AWOL.

Fitch remained undeterred. To pay for the sled, an expense of some $25,000, he got a Calgary bar to host an event with the team where they could sell those famous T-shirts.

And he used his negotiating skills to persuade Olympic officials to allow Stokes' brother, who was at the University of Idaho, to join the bobsledding trio to make a quartet.

Word of the plans go out, and the bobsledding crowds started to grow.

"Somebody told me there were 30,000 people," Fitch said.

The first two heats proved fine.

But the third was a bust, literally.

The sled crashed.

And Fitch became concerned that his worst fear would be realized: His team members would be seriously injured, or worse, die, on the track.

He ran down the track, paramedics trailing behind.

But the Olympians ended up fine, emerging from the wreck bearing broad grins, Fitch recalled.

The grabbed their sled and pulled it across the finish line.

"This part is in the movie," Fitch said.

That was one thing that "Cool Runnings" got right, he said. The other was the scene in which Fitch's recruiting video scared off potential Olympians.

The rest? Despite the film's success, Fitch wasn't exactly pleased with the late John Candy's comedic portrayal of him, as he has noted in interviews with a variety of media outlets over the past few days.

"I was personally offended by the film because I'm not a disgraced Olympic bobsledder who's a drunk, who's spending the rest of my life in some pool hall," Fitch told ESPN. "But that's Hollywood."


***

Fitch hung in with the team through the 1992 games in Albertville, France, and he attended the 1994 games in Lillehammer, Norway, though only as a fan.

Jamaica would continue in bobsledding through the 2002 games in Salt Lake City, but then the run would end.

Until this year.

A two-man team qualified for the games, and the bobsledding portion of the Sochi event will begin Sunday.

Fitch isn't really involved with the team anymore, though he and his wife are selling their 1988 T-shirts again, at originaljamaicabobsled.com.

Before the Sochi games began, news stories said that the Jamaican team qualified but needed funding to get to Russia.

Fitch wonders about that, as travel and expenses are supposed to be covered for Olympians.

So he hopes the tens of thousands of dollars raised online will go to furthering bobsledding in Jamaica. He knows the money he makes from the shirt sales will.

His teams didn't end up with Olympic medals. And he didn't get the GOP nomination for governor in 2005. It went to Jerry Kilgore, who was defeated by now-U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine.

But recently Fitch has been talking a lot about the bobsledding history he made in 1988.

He has posted quite a run as Warrenton's mayor, as well.

Fitch decided not to stand for re-election this year, but when his current term ends June 30, he will have served 16 years.

Or, put another way, as long as it takes to hold a set of four Olympics.

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