The Olympic Games are full of stories of courage, particularly where surprising competitors, who lacked appropriate local training facilities, may not have walked off with medals, but who overcame these difficulties just to be able to compete. Some may remember Eddie “The Eagle” Edwards or Eric (“The Eel”) Moussambani Malonga. However, probably the most famous, at least in part because of the movie “Cool Runnings”, is the Jamaican bobsleigh team who competed in the 1988 Winter Olympics.
Now, the story could be repeating, with a Panamanian bobsled team trying to qualify for the 2014 Winter Olympics, to be held at Sochi in Russia. The only snow ever found in Panama is on the peak of Volcán Barú, and there are no artificial ski slopes, let alone any bobsleigh runs. However, this is not preventing the Panamanian team from seeking qualification. Christoph Zollinger is a Panamanian lawyer who lives and works in Switzerland, where there is no shortage of snow, ice and
the famous Saint Moritz bobsleigh run, where Zollinger first discovered his love for the sport. Inspired by Cool Runnings, Zollinger contacted Hans Hiltebrand, a very experienced Swiss bobsleder, twice world champion, former coach, manager and manufacturer of sleds. Together Zollinger and Hiltebrand set out to create a Panamanian team to crew “The Spirit of Panama”.
They tried the Athletics Federation of Panama and then, when that failed to produce enough team members, went on state television to appeal for talent. In total, 85 athletes, including members of a special forces unit of the National Police. Among the final team member are Jonathan Romero (Panama’s second best long-jumper after Irvin Saladino), and national 100 and 200 meter runners Zollinger Caballero, Eduardo Fonseca and Andreas Rodriguez. Just as in “Cool Runnings”, the team practice with a bobsled mounted on wheels. In addition, they created the necessary structures, national bobsleigh federations and winter sports, and received licenses from the International Federation of Bobsleigh and Skeleton (FIBT) and the International Olympic Committee (IOC).
The team gained experience by completing training in Innsbruck, Saint Moritz and Lake Placid, first competing in the Copa America in November 2011. While the whole idea may seem incongruous and fit only for the sequel to Cool Runnings, the Panamanian team have been quietly and steadily climbing the world rankings. They may not win any medals as Sochi, but for a country where the temperature rarely falls below 80 degrees, even qualification will be an achievement in itself.