A Jamaican bobsleigh team caught the world’s attention in 1988. Inspiring the hit film ‘Cool Runnings’, their story is well known by us all and the film became a cultural phenomenon, but Jazmine Fenlator-Victorian has not only revived their legacy, but pushed it further, and her story should be just as known.
Jazmine was born in 1985 and was raised in a small town in New Jersey in a mixed heritage household. Her mother was white and father was Jamaican, and in a predominantly white town, this was difficult to grow up with. She was faced with racist insults, slurs and ostracisation from a young age:
“I had kids starting - I want to say around seven - saying racial slurs to me. And I remember riding my bike and some kid riding his bike and spitting on me in my own yard and not understanding why he is spitting on me and calling me names or saying that I’m the colour of poop, like who does that?” Jazmine explained on Eurosport’s podcast Raw.
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As a result of this treatment – and despite having parents who stood up for her and reminded her that her skin and curly hair was beautiful – Jazmine found herself often feeling out of place. But her sense of belonging was helped and her life was changed when it became apparent that she was an incredibly talented athlete.
After shocking her teacher at how far she could throw a shotput with no real previous experience, she was invited to participate in track and field where she broke high school records, got recruited to college as an athlete, broke college records and became a hall of famer.
Her achievements as a multi-eventer had her scouted for a sport she had never thought about, let alone tried before: bobsleigh.
The whole experience of bobsleigh was new to her, but after succeeding in try-outs in 2007 she soon started training with the USA’s elite development team. As she progressed, she won three medals at world cups, qualified for and competed at the 2014 Winter Olympics, and by the following season was ranked 3rd in the world.
But there was still something missing. When she thought about the legacy she wanted to leave in sport, she realised much of it relied on the message she was sending out to those just like her. How could she influence people from different backgrounds to walk down paths that they did not believe belonged to them? That was when she decided to leave Team USA and join Team Jamaica.
Jazmine at the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympic Games for Jamaica
Image credit: Getty Images
Jamaica have accumulated 78 medals at the summer Olympics since 1948 despite only having a population of just under 3 million, but in the winter Olympics, that medal tally still stands at zero.
It is of course understandable that a tropical island would not have a huge history of excelling at winter sports, but it means that those from Jamaica who do want to participate in winter sports have sometimes struggled with sourcing the equipment, facilities and funding that is needed.
In 2014, as Jazmine was competing in the Olympics for the USA, Jamaica were having to raise money for equipment through crowdfunding. The two-man bobsleigh team that qualified was piloted by Winston Watt, who put up his own money to get his team to the Olympics, but still had to turn to the internet for help, where the public raised 25,000 dollars’ worth of crypto currency to allow them to compete.
Jazmine experienced similar struggles when competing with Jamaica: “I actually paid for myself to travel around with the team. We’d sleep on air mattresses, wherever we could, sometimes couches.
We’re making soup and literally running out of groceries. So just pouring more water to stretch the soup. I maxed out all my credit cards.
People may question why Jazmine would go from having food, accommodation and training all paid for and taken care of with the USA, to struggling financially just to compete in her sport, but for Jazmine it meant much more than that.
She led her team to compete in the 2018 winter Olympics where they were met with lots of attention and support: “We made something blossom out of 1988 […] we had Koreans that were holding flags that were Korea and Jamaica. We had Russians with a Russian flag and Jamaica, and there was this whole duality of having their nation and then having a Jamaica flag out of nowhere”.
And she cemented just how meaningful her team’s participation could be in a competition where only just under 2% of the athletes were black, by delivering a powerful monologue in her press conference before the games. She stated to the press: “It’s important to me that little girls and boys see someone that looks like them, talks like them, has the same culture as them, has crazy curly hair and wears it natural, has brown skin-included in different things in this world”.
She knew all too well about racist attitudes towards her darker skin and natural hair from her childhood in the 80s and 90s, and yet just two years before this speech, a fellow Olympic athlete Gabby Douglas – a gymnast for the USA – was distraught over racist online hounding and ridicule over her natural hair too.
It shows just how important it is to have increased diversity, but also just how difficult it is for those who have to take on everything that comes with being one of the first to be different in their field.
Jazmine after a heat at the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympic Games
Image credit: Getty Images
Jazmine’s 2018 team did not reach the heights that she wanted to reach in terms of where they placed in the competition, but it was never just about performance. It was about being able to take her incredible athletic ability and use it to gain a platform where she could show people that regardless of their backgrounds, they could try new things and succeed.
She wanted to use her platform to reach out to young girls and boys who are struggling to belong and struggling to cope with the racism around them, and tell them:
“You’re fricking beautiful. You’re amazing. I love your dark skin. I love all shades of your dark skin. I love your pigmentation. I love this. You’re amazing. It’s you. Love you.”
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