In November 1987, Jamaican sprinter Derice Bannock, a top 100m runner and popular town figure, trains one morning with locals for the upcoming Olympic Trial for the 1988 Summer Olympics, which has been a long-time dream of his. He later meets his best friend, Sanka Coffie, a six-time pushcart champion, at the Annual Pushcart Derby, where Sanka hopes to win his record seventh race. During the race, Sanka smart-talks past the others and wins, but is then pushed off the track by a nearby racer and crashes. Later at the Olympic Trial, Derice fails to qualify when a fellow younger runner trips and falls, taking Derice and another runner – who is bald and more muscular – down with him. Derice later complains to the President of the Jamaican Olympic Committee, Mr. Barrington Coolidge, and urges him to allow a restart of the race; Mr. Coolidge says he can’t do that, but urges Derice to consider either boxing or cycling if he wants to get into the Olympics somehow. Dejected, Derice notices a picture on the wall of Coolidge’s office: it is his own father Ben Bannock, who was also a sprinter, standing next to a gold-medal-wearing Caucasian man.
Asking Coolidge who the other man in the picture is, he learns that he is Irving “Irv” Blitzer, an old Olympian friend of Ben who had a plan to recruit sprinters to create a Jamaican bobsled team years ago – but that plan didn’t work out. Irving is a two-time American bobsled Gold Medalist at the 1968 Winter Olympics who finished first in two events again during the 1972 Winter Olympics but was disqualified from the latter for cheating and retired in disgrace to Jamaica, where he leads an impoverished life as a bookie. Intrigued at the idea of getting to the Olympics via bobsledding for Jamaica, Derice leaves Coolidge’s office to seek out Blitzer.
Before meeting with Irv, Derice first seeks out Sanka to get him to join his Bobsled and possibly help convince Irv. Initially turned off by Derice’s boldness, Sanka agrees as Derice calms down and mentions possible fame on a Wheaties box. They both then go to seek out Irv Blitzer at a nearby Billiards Club, where he works as a bookie. Irv is initially hostile and refuses to speak to them; after repeated attempts, Derice finally manages to tell him that he’s Ben Bannocks’ son and reminds him of his former Olympic dreams, which eventually convinces Irving. Hosting a recruitment meeting shortly after, Irv, Derice, and Sanka are disappointed when all the recruits leave after a presentation; however at the end, two familiar men show up – the other runners who fell alongside Derice in the earlier Olympic qualifying race. Both men agree to join the team, although the bald and muscular one, with the unlikely name of Yul Brenner, is still upset over being tripped by the younger runner, Junior Bevil.
Over the next several weeks, the four train under Irv’s guidance, using a wheeled bobsled that they ride down on hillsides; over time they improve both their speed and sled coordination. Irv eventually tries to talk to Mr. Coolidge to fund them the $20,000 needed to go to the Winter Olympics, but Mr. Coolidge refuses as he thinks the team’s inexperience will embarrass the nation. Undeterred, the four sledders try to find various ways to earn money to get in the Olympics but no sponsor takes the idea seriously and their various fundraisers such as busking and a kissing booth all fail. Junior eventually gets the money by selling his car, and the team heads off to Canada.
In Calgary, Irv officially registers the team and manages to acquire an old practice sled from an old bobsledding teammate Roger, as the Jamaicans have never been in an actual bobsled nor practiced on ice. In the following weeks, they observe ice skaters and hockey players as they practice walking on ice, and workout intensely to gain strength and cold endurance. Derice is particularly inspired by the Swiss Bobsledders’ technique and watches their practice runs. In their own practice runs, with their unadorned practice sled, the Jamaicans initially do poorly and are looked down upon by other countries; the East German team is particularly annoyed with them, and their arrogant leader, Josef Grool, tells them to go home, resulting in a bar fight. At the hotel room, Derice reprimands Sanka, Yul, and Junior for embarrassing their team. The three are not taking him seriously until Irv shows up infuriated by their behavior. He reminds Sanka, Yul, and Junior what is at stake for the team if they do not start listening to him and Derice. The team resolves to view the contest more seriously, continuing to train and improve their technique.
Later on in a hotel room, Junior reprimands Sanka for hurting Yul’s feelings over his ambitions to make a replica of Buckingham Palace as his home. Junior tells Sanka about his own father’s struggle and how he became rich with hard work. Instead of being rude about it, Junior tells Sanka that he should take a lesson from Yul in not giving up on his dream and this makes him feel guilty over how his life has been. Junior encourages Yul not to give up on achieving all of his goals and the two begin to show mutual respect for one another.
They qualify for the finals but are subsequently disqualified due to a technicality which the Olympic committee trotted out as retribution for Irving’s prior cheating scandal. A frustrated Irving butts in on the committee meeting and confronts his former coach from the 1972 Olympic Winter Games, Kurt Hemphill, now a primary judge of the 1988 Olympic Winter Games. He takes responsibility for embarrassing his country with the scandal and implores the committee to punish him for his mistake, but not punish the Jamaican team, as they had nothing to do with his cheating scandal. Irv reminds them that the Jamaicans deserve to represent their country by competing in the Winter Games as contenders. That night at their hotel, the team gets a phone call informing them that the committee has reversed its decision and allows the Jamaicans to compete once again.
The Jamaicans’ first day on the track results in more embarrassment and a last place finish. Sanka identifies the problem as Derice trying to copy the Swiss team which he idolizes and convinces him that the best they can do is bobsled “Jamaican”. Once the team develops their own style and tradition, the second day improves; the Jamaican team finishes with a fast time which puts them in eighth position. Derice asks Irving about why he decided to cheat despite his gold medals and prestige. Irving tells Derice he aspired to make winning his whole life, citing that “a gold medal is a wonderful thing, but if you’re not enough without it, you’ll never be enough with it;”. Irv says that when the Olympics are over, Derice will know if he can think of himself as a champion, medal or no medal. When Mr. Bevil shows up at the team’s Calgary hotel room to bring Junior back home, Junior stands his ground that he must forge his own path in life, earning Yul’s respect.
For the first half of the final day’s race, it looks as though the team will push into medal contention, until misfortune strikes: due to the sled being old, it cannot handle the high speed and eventually one of the sled’s blades detaches from a loosening screw, causing it to flip onto its side as it comes out of a turn, leaving the team meters short of the finish line. Determined to finish the race, the team lift the sled over their shoulders and walk across the finish line to rousing applause from spectators, including Grool, Hemphill, and Junior’s father. The team, at the end, feel accomplished enough to return in four years to the next winter Olympics. A photographer takes a photo of the team, which Mr. Coolidge is seen later adding to his wall photograph collection in his office, adding it just above the photo of Irv and Ben Bannock taken 20 years earlier. A brief epilogue states the team returned to Jamaica as heroes and upon their return to the Winter Olympics four years later, they were treated as equals.