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Va. candidate faces tough sledding

Odds are as long as Jamaican team's were in '88 Olympics

RICHMOND -- George Fitch is being given about as much of a chance of getting elected governor of Virginia as a Jamaican bobsled team has of winning the gold at the Winter Olympics, which happens to be something Fitch knows all about.

Fitch, now a candidate in next week's Republican primary for governor, bankrolled a group of Jamaicans and brought them to the 1988 Winter Games in Calgary, Alberta, to challenge the world's elite bobsled teams.

The International Olympic Committee, fearing an effort to mock the sport, had tried to bar the Caribbean island team. The Jamaicans finished 10th, and their story, with a comedic twist from Disney, was told in the 1993 hit movie ''Cool Runnings."

Now, Fitch is a small-town mayor with little money, running his first race for any state office against a well-known former Virginia attorney general. He is trying to prove again that he is not so easily dismissed.

This time, he contends, it is the Republican National Committee and the Republican Party of Virginia elbowing him out of the way to make the Tuesday primary a coronation for Jerry Kilgore.

The IOC ''represented the establishment back then, and it's the RNC and RPV that represent the establishment now," said Fitch, 56, a Reagan administration consul to Belize and trade liaison to Jamaica and France.

Kilgore scarcely acknowledges Fitch, instead focusing on the Democratic candidate, Lieutenant Governor Timothy M. Kaine.

Fitch has positioned himself to the right of Kilgore on the potent issue of taxes, railing against last year's $1.4 billion state tax increase.

In the six years since Fitch pulled off an upset to get elected mayor of Warrenton, real estate taxes have been slashed in the picturesque horse country town of about 7,000.

But few Virginia Republicans seem willing to back a long shot as they try to win back the governor's office they lost to Democrat Mark R. Warner four years ago. Warner cannot run for reelection; Virginia does not allow governors to serve back-to-back terms.

Fitch sees parallels in his sporting past.

''I was challenged by some friends in Jamaica to get Jamaica into the Winter Olympics," he said. ''It was six months to go before opening ceremonies, and obviously, with six months, you don't have time to put together an ice hockey team."

He chose bobsledding because Jamaica had superb sprinters, and the sport requires four men capable of fast starts.

He paid their way after government and corporate sponsorship fell through

''I believed I could get a team that could be competitive and make Olympic history, and we were. We beat 10 teams," Fitch said.

''Nobody believed that in six months' time you could get a competitive bobsled team from Jamaica, just like in five months' time, as I announced as late as February, that you could topple the presumptive nominee."

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