A report by Nick Zaccardi for NBC Sports.
The first time a Jamaican bobsled went down an icy track, Sam Clayton was the driver.
“Sammy never, to be honest, showed any nerves,” said Devon Harris, the brakeman in that two-man sled in Calgary in late 1987. “None of the other guys, as far as I can remember, admitted that they were scared. But they had to be. I was scared to death.”
Harris said they started the run halfway down the track and were nudged off with the slightest of pushes. He estimated they didn’t eclipse 30 miles per hour. Sleds today go three times that fast.
“But it feels like you’re screaming down the track,” Harris continued. “We did three runs that night, and I remember on my third run, I was in the back of the sled, screaming at the top of my lungs, ‘Go Sammy Go!’”
Clayton, 58, recently died after a coronavirus bout, according to the International Bobsled Federation. In obituaries, Clayton has been deemed part of the first Jamaican Olympic bobsled team at the 1988 Calgary Winter Games.
The story is a little more complicated than that.
Clayton was not one of the four men who competed in the Olympics, inspiring the film “Cool Runnings.” He wasn’t in Calgary at all in February 1988, but he was instrumental in the roots of the program.
Clayton was “glue on the team” that was first chosen from September 1987 combine tryouts at Jamaica’s national track and field stadium in Kingston, said Chris Stokes, a 1988 Olympic team member.
“Without his sense of humor and calm spirit, I am not sure that the team would have been able to hold it together,” in those first months, Stokes said. “He was a pioneer among pioneers.”
Stokes, who joined the team in the weeks leading up to the Olympics, never met Clayton. But he soon learned about the engineer with the Jamaica Railway Corporation “whose beer belly would have recommended him for the sport in another era,” Stokes wrote in his 2002 book, “Cool Runnings and Beyond: The Story of the Jamaica Bobsleigh Team.”
“Certain stories about him have become somewhat legendary,” Stokes said last week.
Like when the team flew to Europe for the first time in late autumn 1987. In Igls, Austria, Clayton drove a bobsled down a track that ended like a scene out of the Disney film that came out six years later.
Clayton’s sled entered a kreisel, the German word for circle also given to bobsled track curves that approach 360 degrees. The sled got high in the corner and, by the time they exited the kreisel, had turned completely around.
“He completed the run by looking behind him over his shoulders for the remaining five turns,” Stokes wrote. “The feat was impressive but not what was required at the Olympic level.”
Neither Clayton nor brakeman Harris was injured.
“The ego was bruised badly, though,” Harris said.
At the time, Clayton and Harris had already been in verbal conflict about their approach to training. It was their fourth crash together.
“I said, you know what, I’m not starting with this guy anymore, I’m done,” Harris remembered. “Send him back to Jamaica, but I’m not going back down the track with him.”
Jamaica’s two-man sled combinations were switched. Harris went with Dudley Stokes. Clayton joined Michael White. Harris said they competed once in December against lower-ranked teams from Europe.
Then they went back to North American for Christmas. When they returned for training in Lake Placid in January, Clayton couldn’t be found. He eventually arrived a week late, Harris said.
Clayton later left Lake Placid prematurely, before the Olympic team was named, and did not return to the program. Harris said this came after conversations within the team, including with American George Fitch, who first conceived the idea for a Jamaican bobsled team.
“So that’s why he wasn’t on the Olympic team,” Harris said. “I don’t want to make it sound like he voluntarily left, but I think he was asked to leave. We were beginning to lose confidence in him because of the lack of discipline we observed prior [to Lake Placid] and then him turning up for training a whole week late.”
Dudley Stokes did not remember specifics.
“Sammy knocked on my door, and he said to me, I am leaving,” he said. “I said why. He said I have to take care of some stuff. That was the last conversation we had. I never saw him again.”
Clayton was the lone original member of the Jamaican bobsled program, plucked from the trials in Kingston, who was not at the Calgary Olympics. Harris said he bumped into Clayton some time after the Games in Kingston. The conversation was cordial. They haven’t spoken since.
Harris later posted the photo atop this story (with Clayton in the center) on Facebook. Clayton’s sister commented on it, they chatted, and she told him that he was living in France.
In a New York Times obituary, Clayton was labeled “a musical jack-of-all-trades” who worked as a sound engineer with many foreign artists. One paragraph in the story was devoted to his brief bobsled career.
“The fact that he didn’t make the Olympic team, in my opinion, doesn’t diminish his contribution to the team,” Harris said. “He’s an important part of it. I definitely want to acknowledge people for their contributions. We started out as two two-man teams, and he was an essential part of that for sure.”
Dudley Stokes noted an unintended impact.
After Clayton departed in January 1988, the program was down a driver a month before the Winter Games. It hatched the idea to convert from a pair of two-man teams to create a single four-man bobsled group. That quartet had the famous crash at the Calgary Olympics. That quartet was the inspiration for “Cool Runnings.”
“If Sammy hadn’t left the program, Jamaica bobsled would probably have petered out after the ’88 Games,” Dudley Stokes said. “But the fact we took the four-man and we had the spectacular crash, and George Fitch leveraged that to get a movie for us, none of that happens without Sammy.”