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Crowdfunding their way to the Olympics

Jamaican bobsled team to compete at the Sochi Winter Olympics.
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Jamaican bobsled team to compete at the Sochi Winter Olympics.

Cool Runnings was in need of some cool cash.

The Jamaican bobsled team, which charmed the world in the 1988 Winter Olympics with its unlikely appearance in the games, will return this year but it may not have been able to attend if it weren't for the generosity of the crowdfunding community.

The team officially qualified for the Sochi Games on Jan. 18. Instead of celebrating, though, it faced a major cash crisis.

Sled driver Winston Watts had mentioned to The Associated Press in an interview soon after qualifying that the two-man team, which has no sponsor, needed as much as $80,000 in the next couple weeks to cover travel and equipment costs. That's when the fans stepped in.

Lincoln Wheeler, a fan of the Winter Games (with no connection to the Jamaican team), launched a grassroots funding drive within hours on the crowdfunding site Crowdtilt. And by Tuesday, it had raised more than $115,000, far surpassing its goal.

Crowdtilt wasn't the only fundraising campaign for the team. Another, on indiegogo.com had topped $40,000 Tuesday. And users of the virtual currency Dogecoin donated $30,000, which was added to the Crowdtilt totals Monday night, helping push the figure above its target.

"This is the Internet coming together," Crowdtilt CEO James Beshara said in an interview. "This is something that couldn't have been done five years ago."

Sochi officials, recognizing a good PR story at a time when the games could certainly use one, have announced that the team qualifies for the Games and the Jamaican government would cover the athletes' travel expenses, according to AP.

Beshara said a team official told him the extra money would be used to fund the bobsledders for future Olympics.

Beshara says Crowdtilt is already in talks with the other Jamaican bobsled crowdfunding campaigns about consolidating their drive onto its site. Jamaican bobsled team president Chris Stokes and founding member of the original "Cool Runnings" team Devon Harris helped those efforts on Monday, confirming Crowdtilt as the official fundraiser for the Jamaican bobsled team.

The money has been flowing in from all directions, too. Beshara says his site has so far seen donations from all 50 U.S. states and 49 countries.

"It's humbling to see people get together and do something so positive on the Internet, and if we can promote that spirit through Dogecoin then I think our mission is complete," Dogecoin co-founder Jackson Palmer said in a statement.

It has been 12 years since Jamaica has entered a team in a bobsled event. The country had hoped to enter the 2010 Games, but was unable to attend because of funding problems.

The Jamaican team can, at least indirectly, thank Disney for the speed with which the fundraising efforts went viral around the Internet. While the original Jamaican bobsledders charmed the world in the '88 Games, their story went widespread in 1993 when the studio released "Cool Runnings," a film starring John Candy that grossed nearly $69 million (which would be over $111 million today).

While the Jamaican bobsledders have certainly topped Olympic crowdfunding efforts, they're not the only team that has depended on the kindness of strangers to fund their dream.

RallyMe is a crowdfunding site specifically focused on athletes, teams and organizations—and one that has been endorsed by the U.S. Ski Team, U.S. Speedskating and USA Bobsled and Skeleton.

The organization has seen notable successes as well, such as ski jumper Lindsey Van, who raised over $20,000—in a campaign to raise just $13,000.

Canadian athletes use a similar sports-themed crowdfunding site called Pursu.it. One of those, Alpine skier Larisa Yurkiw, who will be part of the Canadian team in Sochi, picked up $22,476 to help cover her costs. The efforts came after a 2009 knee injury kept her out of the 2010 Games—and the national team dropped her last season.

And given the success the Jamaican team has seen, crowdfunding could quickly become a larger part of future Olympic games.

"If you look back at social media and its impact on the 2008 election, that was a turning point," said Beshara. "With crowdfunding, we're about four or five years behind, but you're seeing very much of the same story. These are tools of independents and early adopters. I think we're going to start to see crowdfunding not only become a big part of the Olympics, but also go into our weekly and daily lives."

—By Chris Morris, special to CNBC.com.

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