It’s the last round of the four-man bobsled event in the 1988 Winter Olympics, and something is about to go horribly wrong. After stunning the world by edging into eighth place in the bobsledding rankings, the Jamaican team is barreling down the track at record-breaking speed. Right at the peak of the race, at the point when the sled couldn’t get any faster and the tension couldn’t be any thicker, it happens. The thing tips over, and your heart stops. Among the thousands of spectators, yourself included, no one breathes as the sideways steel tube skids hundreds of yards before finally sliding to a precarious stop. Just as everyone has lost hope, and you’re wondering why you just spent 88 minutes rooting for these guys if it’s just going to end like this, the camera peels back. The emergency responders fold away, and before you realize what’s happening, the scene dissolves into view: the competitors are walking out, carrying the sled on their shoulders. And they cross the finish line, marching to the beat of the best-employed slow-clap in cinematic history. It gets me every goddamn time.
Scenes like this one are emotionally manipulative and (in my opinion) beautifully shot, but that was never the point of Cool Runnings. Like it or not, it's beyond argument that the fictionalized re-telling of Jamaica's first ever Olympic bobsled team is a culturally important film. If you've ever doubted it, all you need to do is look at American media coverage of the Sochi Olympics and note its continued obsession with the two-man bobsled team from the small Caribbean nation, despite the fact that the duo finished dead last in the event this year. Some people chalk up the film's longevity to its pure uniqueness as a sports comedy, or its sudden relevance every four years when we remember that bobsledding is a sport. As for me, I think there's a better reason.
I often make the argument, especially around friends, that Cool Runnings is the best sports movie ever made. Believe me, I know how ridiculous that sounds. And when I’m making my pitch for why this hokey early 90s fish-out-of-water Disney comedy deserves to be discussed in the same breath as The Godfather, I embrace the humor in what I’m saying. But every time I’m depressed, discouraged, overwhelmed or just bored, I still whip out my laptop and spend the next hour-and-a-half in front of the MOV file I torrented in the seventh grade. And it just never gets old.
Since the first time I sat through Cool Runnings, I’ve always thought of it as a work of cinematic genius. Sure, at first a good part of that was likely because I was 8 years old, but since then I've watched it more than any other movie, with the possible exception of The Room, and I simply never stopped feeling that way. Even as a 21-year-old, what still makes Cool Runnings speak so directly to me is how replete it is with parables and messages that I never found in movies like Rudy or Remember the Titans. Call it an empty, silly feel–good comedy, but it's hard to find any single movie that so dramatically expresses as many purely positive themes. The following 12 are only the few most relevant to high-achieving, hopelessly sheltered college students like us.
1. Be adaptable. Sometimes dreams have to be modified.
Sanka Coffie: "It says here, the key elements to a successful sled team are a steady driver, and three strong runners to push off down the ice... ICE? Ice!"
Derice Bannock: "Well it's kind of a winter sport, ya know!"
The events of the film are set into motion when Derice Bannock (Leon), a legendary sprinter, trips and falls during an Olympic qualifying race. His lifelong dream of representing his country on the short track has been dashed, but instead of giving up or desperately trying to recapture it, he sets his sights on something else. He's never touched or even seen a bobsled before, but he's willing to dive into it, because it's his only option. Disney movies often like to make it seem like any goal is possible if you try hard enough, but Cool Runnings is mature enough to know this isn't always the case. Sometimes, it just doesn't work out, and it takes versatility and a positive attitude to move on with what you have and keep trying.
2. Be persistent. Anything worth trying is worth trying 10 times.
Irv Blitzer: "Does the word 'no' mean anything to you?"
Derice: "Not a thing."
Once Derice has his sights set on bobsledding, he needs a coach. American expatriate Irv Blitzer (John Candy) is his only hope, but Blitzer won't agree to take on the role before a whole lot of bothering and persuasion. Especially during internship application season, perhaps no message is more appropriate for college kids: If possible employers don't respond to your inquiries, keep badgering them. It worked for Derice, after all.
3. Never be afraid to stand out in a crowd.
Junior Beville: "Seemin' to you nobody likes us?"
Yul Brenner: "We're different. People are always afraid of what's different."
I have an honest suspicion that whoever coined the rallying cry "let your freak flag fry" got the idea from seeing four Jamaicans in puffy coats show up to a Winter Olympic Games in Canada. For most of the people there, the way they looked was enough reason to think Sanka (Doug E. Doug), Derice, Yul (Malik Yoba) and Junior (Rawle D. Lewis) had no place competing among the sea of WASPs and Slavs around them. It takes a kind of righteous confidence to accept, much less embrace, the fact it you're different from your peers.
4. Don’t let yourself be discouraged by people who judge or doubt you.
Yosef Grul: "You have no business here, Jamaica. Why don't you just go home and leave the bobsledding to the real men, ja?"
Throughout the movie, all the ridicule and intimidation pointed at the Jamaicans is embodied the face and the name of Josef Grul (Peter Outerbridge), the sneering representative of bobsledding's old guard – and, let's face it, gushingly stereotypical bad guy – who periodically harasses them. Grul plays the high school bully for nearly the entire latter part of the film, and it's up to the Jamaicans to ignore him and focus on their sledding, which they accomplish, with the exception of one slap-happy bar fight set to an Alberta country twang. Oh, Sanka.
5. Don’t be too proud to rely on others for support.
Yul: "Hey dreadlocks, lemme kiss your lucky egg."
The wooden egg Sanka keeps in his pocket for good luck is a thematic symbol – a motif, if you will – of Yul's evolution as a character from closed-off hardass to warm-hearted team player. Yul's budding relationship with Junior along the course of the movie, in which the latter teaches the former the value of ambition and the former returns the favor by instilling in Junior some much-needed pride and confidence, gets across that no matter how much personal growth comes from within, just as much stems from our relationships. It's worth remembering that even when you think you're strong enough to provide all the answers, or even if you look like a slightly-less-beefy version of Terry Crews the way Yul does, there's never shame in asking for a hand.
6. Self-confidence is the key to success.
Yul: "Look into that mirror, and tell me what you see."
Junior: "I see Junior."
Yul: "Well you know what I see? I see pride. I see power. I see a badass mother who don't take no crap off of nobody!"
Yul's message to Junior is one of the tiredest motivational sayings we hear, but one of the hardest to take to heart: If you don't believe in yourself, why should anyone else? Whether it's with professors, bosses or potential romantic interests, true success always starts with planting your feet and proudly affirming your own awesomeness. The next time your confidence is shaken, put yourself in front of a mirror and repeat Yul's mantra, and you'll feel like one badass mother.
7. Your parents can’t write your future. Only you can.
Junior: "Father, when you look at me, tell me what you see."
Papa Beville: "OK, I'll tell you. I see a scared little boy, who's lucky that his father knows what's best for him."
Junior: "No father, y'see, you don't know what's best for me. I'm a man, and I'm an Olympian. And I'm staying right here."
It can be a hard lesson to learn when you turn 18 and leave the nest, but it's a truth we all face sooner or later: Our parents will always know what's good for us, but they will never know what's best for us. The moment that Junior slams his hand in the elevator door and gathers the courage to stand up to his overbearing father, he reminds us that regardless of how mom or dad think we should spend our lives, we will always have to find our own way.
8. Have pride in your heritage and your homeland.
Sanka: "Listen here star, I didn't come all the way out here to forget who I am and where I come from. Now if we talk Jamaican, walk Jamaican, look Jamiacan and is Jamaican, we sure as hell better bobsled Jamaican."
When Derice sees the Swiss bobseld team go for a practice run he immediately makes it his mission to emulate them whole-heartedly, even chanting "eins, zwei, drei" to push off the Jamaican sled. But after the team chokes on its first run of the competition, it's Sanka's turn to give a heart-rending monologue over sappy piano music, this time about the value of being proud to be Jamaican. It's only after the team embraces their true identity, instead of trying to copy someone else's, that they find their true power as a team.
9. If you spend enough time at it, you can become a master at anything.
Irv: "Winning a bobsled race is about one thing: the push-start. Now I know you dainty, little track–stars think you're fast. Well, let's see how fast you are when you push a six-hundred pound sled. Now a respectable start time is 5.7 seconds. If you speed demons can't whip off an even six flat, you have a better chance of becoming a barbershop quartet."
At the time our four heroes form their team, none of them have any experience with bobsledding, despite being seasoned sprinters (or, in Sanka's case, a remarkably successful pushcart driver). Luckily, with the help of not one, but two upbeat training montages, the group is handily whipped into shape. A perfect demonstration of the 10,000 hour rule it may not quite be, but the movie drives home the point that if you want to get good at anything, all you have to is practice. A lot.
10. Finishing is more important than winning.
Derice: "Coach, how will I know if I'm enough?"
Irv: "When you cross that finish line, you'll know."
It's in its iconic final scene that Cool Runnings forcefully distinguishes itself from the contiguous mass of sports movies capped off by a boring, predictable victory. It's refreshing to see a film where the climactic moment of triumph comes not when the team bests the Russian hockey team or crushes a homerun that shatters the stadium lights, but when they fall over halfway through and carry the sled to the finish line. It reminds us that if we commit to anything, we're not obligated to be the best at it. But we do owe it to ourselves to follow through on it.
11. You’re not defined by your failings; you’re defined by how you respond to them.
Sanka: "Derice, ya dead?"
Derice: "No, mon. We have to finish the race."
It's easy to judge someone by their victories, but, as that final scene demonstrates, the true test of a person's strength is how that person reacts in the face of defeat. It takes a certain stength of character to win at someone else's game; it takes something even greater to realize you've lost, then heap a 1,400 lb. steel tube onto your shoulders and walk it across half a mile of ice. That timeless message of perserverance also shines through another of the film's rich storylines: Irv, having himself been an bobsledder for team USA, was stripped of his medals for cheating in the games 20 years earlier. It was his ragtag bunch of upstart Jamaican sprinters who helped him realize that his one-time mistake shouldn't preclude him from getting back into the game, and therein, showed him the true value of redemption.
12. Communism is bad.
Grul: "Hey quiet down, Jamaica. You are not owning this place."
Seriously, could you possibly conceive of a more perfectly-designed villain than a bobsledding captain from East Germany? His guttural German accent, piercing blue-gray eyes and Soviet satellite homeland make him an evil triple-whammy. Even with the barrier of a two–year buffer period between the fall of the Soviet Union and the release of Cool Runnings, the film still plays up the old Eastern Bloc for all its diabolical worth.