Some ask why. Others say “Why not?”
Seventeen years ago, for some strange and unexplained reason, the beautiful island of Jamaica allowed a cheerful and determined but not particularly talented bobsled team to enter the Calgary Winter Olympics. The athletes were on a proverbial shoestring budget. They borrowed a sled, solicited donations and sold sweatshirts and doughnuts to raise funds. Almost everybody smiled.
Some of us cynical sportswriters appreciated the reggae music and Caribbean pep rallies, snickered at the dreadlocks and wondered aloud if all of Jamaica was suffering from sunstroke, why it bothered to have a bobsled team and why the International Olympic Committee permitted such foolish distractions. We didn’t talk about it at the time but I and others invested $20 each in souvenir sweatshirts. One remains among my sports treasures.
Maybe you remember that the Jamaicans didn’t win an Olympic medal but took over soft spots in several hearts. Their story grew like Pinocchio’s nose and Disney stretched it only a little and transformed it into a movie, Cool Runnings.
You probably don’t remember that Mexico bobsled driver Edoardo Tames y Varela of downtown Guadalajara beat the Jamaican poster boys. Nobody even asked what the Mexicans were doing in Calgary’s ice box. Somebody might have noticed if they’d brought along a mariachi band.
In truth, Mexico has a small supporting argument for winter sports. There are chips of ice beyond frozen margaritas. Several places get cold. The Chihuahua Desert gets really cold. There is snow around the tops of some volcanic mountains and even Mexico City wakes up to occasional frost.
Guadalajara doesn’t get much snow. Well, to be precise, it has snowed once in a hundred years but Tames remains optimistic.
Bobsledding is an exhilarating sport, a wild downhill ride through twists and turns of a long, icy chute. Fast guys go 90 miles an hour. The payoff seems to be on high-tech design of sleds, powerful pushes at the start, perfect knowledge of the course and flawless steering by the pilot. Winners and losers are separated by fractions of a second. The Swiss, Germans, Italians and Austrians get most medals.
Tames’ second chilly Olympic experience was 1992, in the French Alps, at Albertville. He had big fun, didn’t beat much of anybody and retired from the sport. Keep in mind that Mexico has no bobsled runs so Tames and his friends had always gone away to practice and play. Equipment and travel and lost work cost a serious number of pesos. Sometimes there were hidden costs.
In the late 1990s, Tames decided to race again after the Mitchell hair products company agreed to pay some expenses. He and Roberto Lauderdale worked and worked at getting stronger and faster and represented Mexico in the two-man bobsled competition at the Salt Lake City Olympics. That was 2002.
They didn’t exactly melt the ice. They finished 35th, ahead of the U.S. Virgin Islands and Trinidad and Tobago. That was the end of the hair deal.
Tames understood that tough sledding had, for years, strained his marriage and the household budget. He said he would give it up and he almost did — but the world championships were out there, just a year away, and friends pleaded with him to stay and play.
Tames’ wife took a dim view of that and issued a simple ultimatum, me or that silly sled. He says it was a tough decision but that he wouldn’t have been able to live with her or himself if he had walked away from bobsledding.
His most significant explanation was “This is my life.”
Since the divorce, Tames has been focused on how to qualify for the 2006 Olympics in Torino, Italy. First real step was a return trip to Calgary for the 2004 America’s Cup, two and four-man sleds.
How to get there? These Mexican bobsledders are real people, not millionaires hop-scotching between exotic winter wonderlands. Tames works for an organization that discourages kids from using drugs. Carlos Aranda, a former college football player, teaches kindergarten. Gerardo Cortes is an industrial engineer. Eddie Tames, 20, learning to push and ride, is assistant manager of a Krispy Kreme shop in Guadalajara. Now you know the Jamaicans aren’t the only bobsledders with doughnuts.
Tames thought about bumming a ride to Calgary. He asked around but nobody was going last November. He had almost given up the dream when Enrique Ramirez, a mechanic, offered the use of his sporty 1978 El Camino, a little rusty in spots, something over 300,000 miles showing, but sound as a Yankee dollar. Mexicans never mention sound pesos as a symbol of stability. They float around too much.
One sledder caught a plane toward Canada. Three-fourths of the team tossed battered suitcases into the car-truck, slid the sled onto a trailer and hitched up for the long haul, 2,500 miles if they didn’t get lost.
There was no trouble in Mexico and surprisingly little at the border. A radiator hose sprung a leak in Texas. The motor developed a terrible miss in the mountains of Colorado. The cure was one new spark plug.
There were two other concerns. Primary was the gas leak. It had to be leaking somewhere. The El Camino couldn’t possibly drink that much.
The other issue was the bobsledders were about to freeze to death. That old car offered fresh air conditioning, blowing hard through a hole in the floorboard. The travelers debated how to turn up the heater. Tames phoned Ramirez for instructions. Ooops. The mechanic friend had forgotten to mention that the heater didn’t heat.
So, the Mexicans shivered as ice formed on the inside of the windows. They countered with another layer of clothes, spread a blanket over their bodies and charged boldly toward Alberta in really cool country. They slowed some when a tire blew out.
Thanks to gas-station coffee, nobody froze solid. They arrived after just five days, competed gamely and were encouraged by finishing seventh out of nine. They reloaded their rig and drove down to Salt Lake City for another race. After that, they made tracks for Guad. This was just before gasoline prices went sky high in the United States.
Tames led a training trip to Lake Placid, N.Y., this past February. He did not drive the El Camino. A pilot friend negotiated team discount tickets on Aero Mexico. The U.S. Olympic Training Center provided free rooms and food. The Mexicans purchased a very used sled from the Russians. There was even some talk of paying for it.
The sled is not too fancy. Instead of metallic glitter, it is painted with flat white house paint. No NASCAR-type stickers salute sponsors but there are duct tape patches covering scars.
Tames’ devotion to bobsledding has made an impact, home and away. Guadalajara godfathers authorized a push training track, 70 meters from start to stopping place, a rude barricade, a stack of old auto tires in case the brakeman is caught napping.
Believe it or not, the bobsled world is supposedly coming to Guadalajara this month, for the World Push Championships. The Russians are coming with the hope of collecting a first payment on the old sled.
Is this genuine international goodwill and recognition of Mexican bobsledding? Not really. It’s just Tames having the time of his life.