Cool Runnings: How A True Olympic Story Became A Disney Classic

"Cool Runnings" film poster
PHOTO: BUENA VISTA PICTURES

“Feel the rhythm! Feel the rhyme! Get on up, it’s bobsled time!” Odds are if you’re reading this, you’ve seen the classic Disney film “Cool Runnings” at least a few times. 

Released on October 1, 1993 here in the US, the $14 million movie debuted at #3 and raked in $155 million worldwide before presumably making a killing in rentals and home video sales. Most people know that it was based on a true story, but how exactly did that get turned into a comedy with Leon, Doug E. Doug, and John Candy? 

Here’s how it all went down.

The Beginning
PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES
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The Beginning

According to the Jamaica Bobsleigh Federation, it all started with two Americans. George Fitch and William Maloney saw a push cart derby race while in Jamaica that reminded them of the winter sport. Fitch and Maloney realized that a big part of bobsledding is the ability of the athletes to sprint at the start, which made a light bulb go off.

With support from the president of the Jamaica Olympic Association, Fitch and Maloney started the recruiting process. They started with track runners, but understandably had trouble getting top athletes to switch sports. They then turned to the Jamaica Defense Force, where Colonel Ken Barnes helped organize a recruitment meeting with around 40 candidates.

PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES
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At the meeting, Fitch showed footage of bobsleds crashing. The next day, only half of the group returned for trials. The team selected included three members of the army (Captain Dudley Stokes, Lieutenant Devon Harris, Private Michael White) and one civilian, Samuel Clayton. Frederick Powell and Caswell Allen joined later, but Stokes’ brother, Chris, later replaced Allen.

PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES
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The story of the underdog team from Jamaica became an international news event before the 1988 Olympic Games in Calgary, and the members of the team became celebrities of the sport. They unfortunately did not overcome the odds, and with a scary 85MPH crash out of 270-degree circular turn, their dreams of taking home at Calgary were crushed.

Lights, Camera, Action
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Lights, Camera, Action

About a year prior, producer Dawn Steel was casting a film called “Blue Maaga,” which was supposed to be a more dramatic version of the Jamaican bobsled team’s story. According to Entertainment Weekly, that is the script that Leon, Malik Yoba, Doug E. Doug, and Rawle D. Lewis got first.

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“Dawn Steel called me on Christmas Eve of 1991 saying, ‘Hey they’re not going to make the movie, but I’m going to get this movie made’,” said Malik Yoba (Yul Brenner). 

About 8 months later, Yoba says that a new director (Jon Turteltaub) was on board and they wanted him to come back for another screen test.

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“I was sent the [Blue Maaga] script and I was quite frankly bored by it,” said Doug E. Doug (Sanka). “My family’s from Jamaica and it’s quite an extraordinary story, but a dramatic take on it just didn’t work for me.” 

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The project fell through, but like Yoba, Doug later got a call about the changes. “Apparently they decided to revisit the idea of a comedy and I was sent the script, read it and then I met with the late, great Dawn Steel and Jon Turteltaub," he said. "I tried to push my heritage. Like most auditions, I didn’t know if any of that was working. Then I got a call to do a screen test at some undisclosed location. It was really like a hush, hush project.”

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Rawle Lewis (Junior) was an intern helping to cast the film. While going over lines with actors like he liked (including Cuba Gooding Jr. and Jeffrey Wright), he says that he would "give them more " because he wanted them to get the parts, and that's when the Disney execs started to notice him. After a table read, he was asked to go to a screen test but didn’t realize that it was for him.

The Differences
PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES
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The Differences

As things started to come together with the cast, director Jon Turteltaub says that he made sure they knew they were playing real people and that the script was very loosely based on their lives. “We would never get away today with the changes we made to the true story," he told Entertainment Weekly. 

“But at the time we just kept refining the true story to make it into a better movie. And shape the character and the tone of it so that it played well as a movie. The feeling is the same. The tone is the same. The ambition is the same. The absurdity was the same. And the main key events were the same.”

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ANDREW LASANE

Andrew LaSane is a Charleston-born, Brooklyn-based writer with a Masters in Media, Culture, and Communications and a deeply rooted love of pop culture. He has written about television, film, fashion, politics, science, and various other topics for several publications including Complex, Thrillist, Mental Floss, and Merry Jane.

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