Sam Clayton, Jamaica’s first bobsled driver, was ‘a pioneer of pioneers’

Sam Clayton Jamaica Bobsled
Ron Fanfair
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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.”

Jamaica Bobsled
Sam Clayton (left to right), Devon Harris and Dudley Stokes training in Kingston in September 1987. Courtesy: DevonHarris.com

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.”

MORE: Usain Bolt still showing up to the track in retirement

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Elena Fanchini, medal-winning Alpine skier, dies at 37

Elena Fanchini
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Elena Fanchini, an Italian Alpine skier whose career was cut short by a tumor, has died. She was 37.

Fanchini, the 2005 World downhill silver medalist at age 19, passed away Wednesday at her home in Solato, near Brescia, the Italian Winter Sports Federation announced.

Fanchini died on the same day that fellow Italian Marta Bassino won the super-G at the world championships in Meribel, France; and two days after Federica Brignone — another former teammate — claimed gold in the combined.

Sofia Goggia, who is the favorite for Saturday’s downhill, dedicated her World Cup win in Cortina d’Ampezzo last month to Fanchini.

Fanchini last raced in December 2017. She was cleared to return to train nearly a year later but never made it fully back, and her condition grew worse in recent months.

Fanchini won her world downhill silver medal in Italy in 2005, exactly one month after her World Cup debut, an astonishing breakout.

Ten months later, she won a World Cup downhill in Canada with “Ciao Mamma” scribbled on face tape to guard against 1-degree temperatures. She was 20. Nobody younger than 21 has won a World Cup downhill since. Her second and final World Cup win, also a downhill, came more than nine years later.

In between her two World Cup wins, Fanchini raced at three Olympics with a best finish of 12th in the downhill in 2014. She missed the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics because of her condition.

Fanchini’s younger sisters Nadia and Sabrina were also World Cup racers.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

USA Boxing to skip world championships

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USA Boxing will not send boxers to this year’s men’s and women’s world championships, citing “the ongoing failures” of the IBA, the sport’s international governing body, that put boxing’s place on the Olympic program at risk.

The Washington Post first reported the decision.

In a letter to its members, USA Boxing Executive Director Mike McAtee listed many factors that led to the decision, including IBA governance issues, financial irregularities and transparency and that Russian and Belarusian boxers are allowed to compete with their flags.

IBA lifted its ban on Russian and Belarusian boxers in October and said it would allow their flags and anthems to return, too.

The IOC has not shifted from its recommendation to international sports federations last February that Russian and Belarusian athletes be barred, though the IOC and Olympic sports officials have been exploring whether those athletes could return without national symbols.

USA Boxing said that Russian boxers have competed at an IBA event in Morocco this month with their flags and are expected to compete at this year’s world championships under their flags.

“While sport is intended to be politically neutral, many boxers, coaches and other representatives of the Ukrainian boxing community were killed as a result of the Russian aggression against Ukraine, including coach Mykhaylo Korenovsky who was killed when a Russian missile hit an apartment block in January 2023,” according to the USA Boxing letter. “Ukraine’s sports infrastructure, including numerous boxing gyms, has been devastated by Russian aggression.”

McAtee added later that USA Boxing would still not send athletes to worlds even if Russians and Belarusians were competing as neutrals and without their flags.

“USA Boxing’s decision is based on the ‘totality of all of the factors,'” he said in an emailed response. “Third party oversite and fairness in the field of play is the most important factor.”

A message has been sent to the IBA seeking comment on USA Boxing’s decision.

The women’s world championships are in March in India. The men’s world championships are in May in Uzbekistan. They do not count toward 2024 Olympic qualifying.

In December, the IOC said recent IBA decisions could lead to “the cancellation of boxing” for the 2024 Paris Games.

Some of the already reported governance issues led to the IOC stripping IBA — then known as AIBA — of its Olympic recognition in 2019. AIBA had suspended all 36 referees and judges used at the 2016 Rio Olympics pending an investigation into a possible judging scandal, one that found that some medal bouts were fixed by “complicit and compliant” referees and judges.

The IOC ran the Tokyo Olympic boxing competition.

Boxing was not included on the initial program for the 2028 Los Angeles Games announced in December 2021, though it could still be added. The IBA must address concerns “around its governance, its financial transparency and sustainability and the integrity of its refereeing and judging processes,” IOC President Thomas Bach said then.

This past June, the IOC said IBA would not run qualifying competitions for the 2024 Paris Games.

In September, the IOC said it was “extremely concerned” about the Olympic future of boxing after an IBA extraordinary congress overwhelmingly backed Russian Umar Kremlev to remain as its president rather than hold an election.

Kremlev was re-elected in May after an opponent, Boris van der Vorst of the Netherlands, was barred from running against him. The Court of Arbitration for Sport ruled in June that van der Vorst should have been eligible to run against Kremlev, but the IBA group still decided not to hold a new election.

Last May, Rashida Ellis became the first U.S. woman to win a world boxing title at an Olympic weight since Claressa Shields in 2016, taking the 60kg lightweight crown in Istanbul. In Tokyo, Ellis lost 3-0 in her opening bout in her Olympic debut.

At the last men’s worlds in 2021, Robby Gonzales and Jahmal Harvey became the first U.S. men to win an Olympic or world title since 2007, ending the longest American men’s drought since World War II.

The Associated Press and NBC Olympic research contributed to this report.

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