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The Genesis Of JA Bobsled

LANCE NEITA

Saturday, February 15, 2014    

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CORPORATE social responsibility (CSR) can be defined as the continuing commitment by business to behave fairly and responsibly and contribute to economic development while improving the quality of life of employees, local communities and the society at large.

Jamaican businesses have, for many years, been involved in a wide variety of such programmes. The media carries almost daily reports of business sector sponsorship of early childhood education, benefit programmes for the disadvantaged, scholarships, charitable projects, sports and youth development, and community upliftment, to name a few.

The concept behind this is that business and society need each other on a mutually supportive basis, and perhaps explains the endurance of CSR in a time of economic crunch.

The bauxite industry has played a leading role in developing CSR and company public relations programmes on a large scale in Jamaica. On arrival in the 1950s, the companies quickly came to the realisation that establishing sustainable relationships with their host communities and securing their support was a common-sense approach amounting to best business practices in a multinational environment.

History records a long list of corporate contributions made by Alcan, Reynolds, and Kaiser Bauxite from the early days. The companies went on to become integrally involved in education, health, sports, agriculture, and community development.

These are the categories that provide a natural and logical outlet for the exercise of social responsibility and good corporate citizenship.

But there are also some great untold stories of an unorthodox nature which rarely get told, or are sidelined to make space for the contributions in education and other priority items which traditionally make the front page.

For example, what on earth does the Jamaica bobsled team at the Sochi Winter Olympics have in common with a novel and simplistic community relations event which started on the top of a hill in Discovery Bay in 1975?

The story behind that is one of a connection of events that started out as a small exercise designed to strengthen the bond between a business and its host community, as well as to provide much-needed recreation for a rural community.

The Jamaican bobsled teams are the world's most famous and favourite in that category.

We have been the number one attraction at the Winter Olympics since our first entry at the Calgary games in 1988. That team, consisting of Dudley Stokes, Devon Harris, Michael White and Nelson Stokes, grabbed the international spotlight. After all, they were representing a tropical country, Jamaica, which by any stretch of the imagination had no place participating in a winter sport.

They didn't make it to the medal stand, but what a sensation they created as they brought sunshine to the games with their courage, ingenuity and raw skills. They even had to borrow sleds and do makeshift repairs, but in spite of these setbacks and a spectacular crash they enjoyed some of the fastest starts on the course.

Mark up a significant one for Jamaica in 1988. But hold on, the team went across the Atlantic in 1992 to compete at Albertville in France. They failed to finish, yet those pesky Jamaicans were at it again in 1994 at the Lillehammer games, Norway, finishing 14th, but beating the USA, Russia, Australia, France, and sending those mighty teams around the bend. Shades of Usain Bolt to come.

The Jamaicans showed up again, this time at Salt Lake City in 2002, with a two-man team of Winston Watts and Lascelles Brown. They blazed to a Park City track record and then set the Olympic record for the push-start segment of the two-man race at 4.78 seconds.

Of interest is that Lascelles Brown, who became a Canadian resident, bobsledded for Canada at the Turin Winter games in 2006 in Italy and won the Olympic silver medal for the two-man event. And at the Vancouver games in 2010 he was at it again, representing Canada and winning a bronze when his four-man team finished third.

Why am I reminding you of this incredible Jamaican journey? Flashback to the subject of corporate responsibility and an idea that had its tiny start on the top of a hill nicknamed 'Spyglass', the road connecting the Kaiser Bauxite (now Noranda Bauxite) plant to the port.

For years, Spyglass Hill was being used clandestinely by a group of young boys who rode their carts up and down the hill for weekend sport.

It was while observing this covert activity one day in 1975 that Con Pink, then Kaiser's supervisor of community relations, came up with the idea of organising a special race day for the youngsters, naming it a Pushcart Derby, copied, of sorts, from the United States Soap Box Derby.

The company immediately embraced it as a form of community outreach to make social contacts at grass root levels where none existed before. For Kaiser, the big multinational, it provided an opportunity for youngsters who normally pushed carts for a living to be recognised and treated with the dignity afforded others in the society.

And so the Pushcart Derby idea was spread through parishes all over Jamaica, from 'Pain-a-belly' Hill in Hanover to Red Gal Ring in Kingston, and from Port Morant in St Thomas to Negril in Westmoreland. The publicity surrounding these parish elimination derbies resulted in thousands coming to Kaiser each August for the final Derby Day, with the then Governor General Sir Florizel Glasspole presiding as chief patron for 21 years.

The derby became a case study for corporate involvement and participation in a community-based activity shaped out of local culture. It also created an exciting partnership and engagement between 100 company employees working voluntarily with another 100 persons from the local community and across Jamaica.

Among the special visitors enjoying the derby over the years were two of Jamaica's most famous Olympians, Herb McKenley and Don Quarrie; West Indies cricketers George Headley and Michael Holding; world boxing multi-title holder Michael McCallum, and a number of Miss Jamaicas.

The story continues, as here we make the connection between the bobsled adventure, the Pushcart Derby, the power of an idea, and the influence and scope of corporate social responsibility and community relations.

One of those special visitors, a Jamaica Defence Force officer, Lt Dudley Stokes, left the derby in 1984 impressed with the innovation and skills of the boys as they hurtled down Spyglass Hill. He went home to conceptualise Jamaica's historic bobsled entry into the Winter Olympics.

It made history at Calgary, as the world stood up to take note of another headline-making performance by Jamaica on the international front.

What followed was the making of a box-office hit movie by Walt Disney in 1993 which immortalised the derby in a film partly shot at Kaiser that was to have been called Sno Kone but was renamed Cool Runnings.

Born out of a bauxite community relations programme, Cool Runnings is one of the most popular Olympic saga films. The movie continues to draw minorities to winter sports, and according to Winston Watts, captain of the 2014 team, "everytime people see us they say 'Hey, we just watched the Cool Runnings movie'."

There is a point here to be made about sports marketing as well as good corporate social programmes, as the bobsled and the Disney film have proven to be excellent marketing tools for Jamaica. Obviously we haven't tapped into our full potential. Disney spotted the story first and made millions. We did not. There are other stories, epic stories, being played out on the ball ground right now, waiting to be told.

Just wait for the story of 18 primary school footballers from St Elizabeth who had the summer of their lives playing a World Junior Cup tournament in Oslo and were treated like kings by their Norwegian hosts. Another bauxite community relations legend in the making?

— Lance Neita is a public relations and communications specialist. Comments to the Observer, or lanceneita@hotmail.com

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