Five-Ring Circus

Cool Runnings Was Not Good, and It Is Definitely Not a “Cult Classic”

Jamaican bobsledder Frederick Powell speaks to newsmen as his teammates Michael White (C) and Allen Caswell listen on February 12, 1988 at the press center in Calgary, on the eve of the opening of the 1988 Winter Olympic Games.

Photo by TOSHIO SAKAI/AFP/Getty Images

The Jamaican two-man bobsled team is getting a hell of a lot of attention for a team that finished dead last in today’s heats in Sochi. Ovations from the crowd at the opening ceremonies, heartwarming feature stories on NBC, excited reactions from almost every athlete they meet in the Olympic Village: Marvin Dixon and Winston Watts are getting the movie-star treatment. This has nothing to do with the Jamaicans’ athletic prowess, or even their underdog status at the Olympic Games, and everything to do with the movie that was made about their Olympic forefathers: Cool Runnings.

Cool Runnings was a 1993 Disney film about the real-life Jamaican bobsled team that competed at the Calgary Games in 1988. Directed by Jon Turteltaub, who was hot off the success of 1992’s 3 Ninjas, the movie stars Leon, Malik Yoba, Rawle D. Lewis, and Doug E. Doug as the Jamaican bobsledders; John Candy plays the team’s unlikely coach. It’s a family movie that’s straight from the Save The Cat! template, a formulaic sports comedy that knows when to tug at the heartstrings, when to go for laughs, and when to tap into the anti-Swiss sentiment that lies deep within all of our hearts. I liked it a lot when I was 12. I also liked it because I was 12, and not yet old enough to realize how hacky Cool Runnings was.

Yes, Cool Runnings was a movie for kids, but even by kid-movie standards it is very, very hacky. There’s lots of mugging, plenty of pratfalls. One of the bobsledders is named “Yul Brenner,” and, surprise, he’s bald! Another is named “Sanka Coffie,” for no discernable reason whatsoever. Both of these monikers just go to prove Roger Ebert’s First Law of Funny Names, which says that “Funny names, in general, are a sign of desperation at the screenplay level.” As Desson Howe wrote for the Washington Post upon the film’s release, the movie “consists of two running gags: How funny it is for Jamaicans to be in a bobsled team. [And] how funny blacks are when they endure cold.” Howe dismssed Cool Runnings as one of those patronizing, blandly offensive films “in which cartoonish natives scratch their heads and try to make sense of the white world.” He’s not wrong.

Over the last week or so, my colleague Dan Engber has been on the rampage against “Cool Runnings revisionism”—the sentiment being expressed by some in the media that the movie was good, or a “cult classic.” Cool Runnings is second on Box Office Mojo’s list of top-grossing Olympic movies behind Blades of Glory, so it’s got that going for it. But Matthew Power, in conversation with Engber, has it right when he says that Cool Runnings is less a cult classic than a “pop culture punchline”—a movie that’s continually referenced not because it’s good but because it is a strange cultural artifact that a lot of 30-somethings remember. To wit, Entertainment Weekly recently published an oral history of the making of Cool Runnings, which, I believe, now leaves Air Bud: Golden Receiver as the only middlebrow 1990s sports movie that hasn’t been oral-historied.

A lot of athletes in Sochi do seem to genuinely love Cool Runnings. On his Instagram and Facebook accounts, American slopestyle skier Nick Goepper posted a photo he took with one of the Jamaicans, along with a couple of lines of dialogue from the movie. Swedish skier Henrik Harlaut carried a raw egg with him during his slopestyle runs, in honor of a character from Cool Runnings who did the same thing on the bobsled course.* (The egg broke when Harlaut fell down. Harlaut also almost lost his pants when he fell, a gag that wasn’t in Cool Runnings, but could have been.) The Indian luger Shiva Keshavan—who has received almost no attention at Sochi, even though his story is just as cinematic as the Jamaicans’—says he was first inspired to try luge after watching Cool Runnings as a teenager.

I understand why Olympians like the movie. There haven’t been very many movies made about the Winter Olympics, after all, and Cool Runnings is probably better than Blades of Glory. But that doesn’t explain the media’s continued fascination with it, or its insistence that the film is some modern classic that’s justifiably loved by all.

The story of the 1988 Jamaican bobsled team is a great story. The story of the 2014 Jamaican bobsled team is a great story. Cool Runnings is a cartoonish sports comedy meant for children, and I can’t be the only person who is getting pretty sick of hearing about it. If journalists really need some cinematic reference point as a hook for their articles about Jamaican bobsledders, they’d be better off pointing to this brief documentary about the 1988 squad from the website Sports on Earth. The documentary is way more accurate than and just as compelling as Cool Runnings. Plus, it features a clip from a Jamaican bobsledder’s Miller Lite commercial, an ad that may be even dumber than Cool Runnings. Now that’s an amazing accomplishment!

*Correction, Feb. 17, 2014: This post originally stated that skier Henrik Harlaut was Swiss. He is Swedish.

Read the rest of Slate’s coverage of the Sochi Olympics.