Belfast Telegraph

Monday 14 July 2014

Gold hero Robin Dixon's ride of a lifetime

Ulster's four Olympic gold medallists (from left) Stephen Martin, Lord Glentoran, Dame Mary Peters and Jimmy Kirkwood met up for an exclusive photo for the Belfast Telegraph

It began with Lord Lucan and ended with an Olympic gold medal. For Robin Dixon, life has been one heck of a ride.

It is the 50th anniversary of Great Britain's stunning gold medal triumph in the two-man bobsleigh, Dixon and Tony Nash producing the goods at the 1964 Innsbruck Winter Olympics.

It was an unlikely victory – Britain has never managed to repeat the feat – as the Italians, in particular, were a high class professional outfit, strongly tipped to triumph.

And taking the origins of Britain's success into account, the victory was even more surprising.

Dixon, now Lord Glentoran and living near Ballyclare, ended up in the sport by chance.

And the infamous Lord Lucan, who had connections with the British team, played a key role thanks to a chance meeting in St Moritz in 1957.

"John (Lord Lucan) and I were second cousins," explained Dixon, who was on holiday in St Moritz at the time.

"He asked me to fill in with the British team who were a man short due to an injury.

"I told him I had never even heard of bobsleigh.

"I wouldn't have minded, but when he asked me he interrupted a very nice breakfast that I was enjoying!"

And later that day Dixon sampled the one of sport's most dangerous games for the first time.

"I got in the back, didn't look at the course and when we stopped I realised I quite enjoyed it," he said.

It all took off from there, Dixon and Nash forming a formidable partnership.

"I have known Tony, through the sport, since 1957 and we still meet up and keep in touch," said Old Etonian Dixon.

"We would have been disappointed not to have won a medal in 1964, but I don't think either of us felt we had a chance of winning gold.

"We felt pretty confident that if we didn't make any mistakes, we could leave with a medal."

And Dixon, now 78 and President of British Bobsleigh, is impressed by the levels of professionalism in modern-day bobsleigh and the related skeleton event. We are strong in the skeleton and also have a chance of medals in the bobsleigh in Sochi.

"The professionalism of the whole team has gone up a few levels over the years.

"In the 50s, from a GB point of view, it was very amateur.

"It was just a bunch of guys who wanted to have some fun."

Dixon and Nash teamed up in the two-man bob when pilot Henry Taylor, also a leading motor racing driver, was injured competing in Formula 1 in 1960.

"Tony was entirely self-taught. I was a little un-nerved at first, because he's blind as a bat!" recalled Dixon.

And there was, of course, no Lotto funding.

"Our fund-raising was done by our wives. We raised money from dances and balls," he explained.

It really is a throwback to a bygone age, with the social side every bit as important as winning.

Dixon said: "Tony got on very well with the Italians and they gave us a lot of help.

"They felt they'd dominated the sport for a long time and wanted to bring some of the non-alpine countries into it.

"We took our team orders from the Italian team manager. The British Olympic Association were delighted we were being helped.

"It was more dangerous in those days as the tracks were not as well manicured. People were dying every year."

Against such a backdrop, a few drinks after racing was viewed as the best way to relax.

In their 1964 glory bid, Nash and Glentoran led after the first two runs on day one.

"That was pretty hairy. Life got pretty serious. We didn't drink too much whisky that night, I can tell you," said Dixon.

But disaster loomed after the first run on the second day when they discovered an axle bolt had broken and they didn't have a spare.

Incredibly Italy, the gold medal favourites, stepped in to help, lending the British pair the crucial bolt.

This act of generosity went down in Olympic folklore.

"On our last run we made a small mistake and I thought 'that's it'," said Dixon.

"We went to a hut near the finish and had a coffee and schnapps.

"Then various people found us to say the world's press were looking for us.

"The race track had softened and nobody could overtake us.

"Everybody just hugged each other. It was a great moment," he added.

Dixon and Nash had won by 0.12 seconds from Italy.

It was only 10.30 in the morning but the champagne was cracked open – and it flowed all day.

The pair, who have a corner named after them at the St Moritz track, won the world championship in 1965 and took bronze in 1966.

They also competed at the 1968 Winter Olympics in Grenoble, finishing fifth.

"We're still great mates and have a ball when we get together," said Dixon, a career soldier who left the army in 1966 and went into business back in Northern Ireland before becoming the 3rd Baron Glentoran and entering the House of Lords in 1995.

Nash, now 77 and living in Devon, shares Dixon's wonderfully laid-back approach to sporting success.

"I understand they use a sports psychologist, whatever that is. If things got tense we would retire with a bottle of whisky," he said.

Dixon admits he would love to see another British bobsleigh gold and is disappointed that 50 long years have passed without a further triumph.

"It's had some rough times, financially and otherwise.

"I think it has got a strong set up now, with skeleton and bobsleigh under one roof.

"We have a very good base at Bath University and very good relationships with schools and the services and with British athletics.

"I certainly wouldn't knock it. I think the future is strong."

Dixon's triumph gave him his own unique place in Ulster sporting folklore.

Most people know about Dame Mary Peters' gold medal triumph in pentathlon at the 1972 Olympics in Munich.

The gold medals won by hockey players Stephen Martin and Jimmy Kirkwood with Team GB at the 1988 Seoul Olympics have also been well documented.

But Dixon's gold from way back in 1964 is often forgotten.

"I'm immensely proud of the gold medal and it makes you a member of a very exclusive club, not just here in Northern Ireland but also worldwide," said Dixon, whose prowess as a sprinter lent itself to his bobsleigh successes.

Northern Ireland's four gold medallists recently got together for the exclusive photograph seen on these pages. It was a truly golden moment.

And Ulster's Olympic gold medal 'club' is currently open to new members.

The challenge has been thrown down to our Olympic hopefuls.

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