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August 29, 2004 11:32 pm

Jamaican bobsledders race to find sponsors

By Bruce Horovitz

USA TODAY

The Olympic torch is out in Athens. But it's still flickering in Jamaica. Yes, Jamaica.

Savvy marketers already are trying to re-ignite Olympic spirit for the one Winter Olympics team whose very name still makes people smile: the Jamaican bobsled team.

It's getting by on a shoestring right now and is still looking for new sponsorship.

But the underdogs of the 1988 Winter Olympics - whose unlikely winter sports connection became fodder for ``Cool Runnings,'' the hit Disney feature movie - are revamping their image in a new bid for endorsement gold.

The team just signed on with a heavyweight U.S. promotion specialist - CoActive Marketing Group - and with XP Apparel, the same apparel giant that has a license to make clothing for some of the most popular U.S. Olympic teams.

There's more. Coming soon under a Christmas tree near you: Jamaican Bobsled Team sleds.

Also on its way to market: Jamaican Bobsled Team underwear.

``A brand is really an emotional connection,'' says Dudley Stokes, the president of the Jamaican Bobsleigh Federation and driver of the 1988 team whose hopes ended with a terrible crash. ``There is an emotional connection between people and the Jamaican bobsled team.''

But unlike 1988, the team is no longer just a punch-line-on-ice. It has genuine talent.

In Lillehammer, Norway, in 1994, the Jamaicans stunned the world when the four-man team placed 14th, beating the USA, the Russians, the French and one of the Italian teams.

There's even ambitious talk that by the Vancouver Games in 2010, the team could be a medal hopeful.

``The dream is not ended, and the story is not over,'' says Anders Vestergaard, the team's agent and a former bobsledder for the Virgin Islands bobsled team. ``The dream ends with a medal.''

But to help finance their getting to that level, the team is trying to raise $1 million to pay for a new sled, to improve its training equipment and to hire a world-class bobsled coach.

Just one thing's missing: a sponsor to write the check. No one has yet replaced Red Stripe Beer, the national beer of Jamaica, which dropped the team nearly a decade ago.

This time around, the team is seeking a major American sponsor. Sports marketing experts say it could well happen.

``I can already see the reality TV show,'' says Paul Swangard, managing director or the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at University of Oregon. ``There's an opportunity here for the right sponsor.''

Even without one, here's what's on tap:

- New image. The team is working to go hip - and push its abilities instead of its foibles.

Its logo is being redesigned, as is its Web site. A team CD with reggae music is in the works. The team has talked with production companies interested in filming a documentary about its bid for a medal.

``We are not selling `cute' at all,'' says Rod Taylor, vice president at CoActive.

- New stores. The team already has a popular retail store at the main airport in Montego Bay, Jamaica. It's in the process of opening a second store in the tourist-heavy section of downtown Montego Bay.

During the winter, it operates a retail store in Park City, Utah. It was one of the busiest stores at the 2002 Winter Olympics. It's seeking a second domestic retail site in Aspen, Colo.

- New stuff. XP Apparel, which signed on as the team's apparel licensee six weeks ago, is the same company that creates licensed clothing for USA Swimming and USA Volleyball.

Jamaican bobsled is its first Olympic client that isn't American.

``This is the little team that couldn't get up the hill,'' says Bill Wall, president of XP Apparel. ``But if they ever win a medal, imagine the response.''

Especially from kids.

That's why Wall plans to design an upscale kids line of Jamaican Bobsled Team clothing.

The team also has hired a major sled maker to design a kid-targeted sled. There's serious discussion about creating a Jamaican Bobsled Team video game.

``Think about it,'' Stokes says. ``If the team can land a winter sports medal, it would be one of the greatest accomplishments in sports of all time.''

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