‘Lucan interrupted a rather good breakfast and asked if I fancied trying the bobsleigh? I ended up winning an Olympic gold medal’
Soldier, sportsman and peer of the realm, the remarkable Lord Glentoran, Robin Dixon, recalls how a chance meeting with his notorious cousin set him on an unlikely path to a place in history
There was a time when the young adventurer Robin Dixon relished a good snowfall as he went about his business, winning medals with his daring on the winter sports slopes and reaching a peak with an historic Olympic bobsleigh gold medal. This week, he laments, it has been keeping him from his work as Lord Glentoran.
Keenly active in mind and body at age 82, this most remarkable man takes his House of Lords role seriously, flying to London, from his home in Ballyclare, each week to engage in the upper house debates, most notably those relating to the affairs closest to his heart — sport and Northern Ireland.
He does so out of a sense of duty and service, a constant theme in a most amazing life.
“Its a job of work and I feel it is important to keep going, and to play a proper part when I am there. For me, it is all about putting something back,” he says. “But this week I wasn’t able to get over because of the snow and I was disappointed about that.”
It is the ultimate irony for a man, unused to admitting defeat, to be thwarted by snow and ice.
For it was his mastery of those elements that earned him his unique place in sporting history and folklore.
To this day, 54 years after his astonishing feat at the Innsbruck Winter Games in 1964, he and partner Tony Nash remain Great Britain’s only Olympic bobsleigh gold medallists.
Think about it, a bobsleigh gold medallist from Northern Ireland and world champion the following year, for good measure?
It sounds even more unlikely than the script of the cult movie Cool Runnings which tells the story of the Jamaican bobsleigh team at the 1988 Games in Calgary.
Except where Dixon’s life story is concerned, it is a tale of Boys Own ripping yarn proportions, much more astonishing and entertaining than fiction.
Eton-educated Army officer, sportsman, businessman, politician and peer of the realm, his family title inherited from his late father Lord Glentoran, the last Speaker of the Northern Ireland Senate when the old Stormont parliament was stood down and replaced by Direct Rule in 1973.
President of the British Bobsleigh Association, he was an Olympic ice skating judge in the era of gold medallist Robin Cousins.
It is the most incredible CV and at this point no one should be surprised when Lord Lucan makes an appearance.
The infamous earl, Dixon tells us matter-of-factly, was a second cousin who, by sheer chance, put the future Lord Glentoran on the path to Winter Olympic gold medal glory before embarking on his own slippery slope.
“We were related but I only knew him vaguely,” Robin recollects.
But Lucan was to play his part in creating Olympic history when the pair met by coincidence at the exclusive San Moritz ski resort in 1957.
Dixon, then an officer in the Grenadier Guards, was on a services’ ski holiday when Lucan, then plain John Bingham, “interrupted a rather good breakfast”.
“He had some involvement with the British bobsleigh team and asked if I’d like to fill in for a man who was injured,” Robin explains.
“I told him I had never even heard of bobsleigh but I was willing to give it a go. I’d been a boxer in the Army and a fairly good sprinter and wanted to try something different.
“I don’t think I’d ever seen a bobsleigh when I climbed into the back of one and didn’t look at the course on the way down but when we stopped I realised I quite enjoyed it.
“It was more dangerous in those days as the tracks were not as well manicured. People were dying every year but I was hooked.”
Lucan, of course, would go on to become one of the most notorious crime figures of the 20th century for the 1974 murder of his children’s nanny, Sandra Rivett, and a brutal attack on his estranged wife, followed by a disappearance and fruitless worldwide manhunt that continues to fascinate. He was legally declared dead in 2016.
“I believe he was dead long before that,” offers Robin, who in sharp contrast, went on to find fame. While still serving as an Army officer, he and Nash began racing in four-man bobs, but teamed up in the two-man when pilot Henry Taylor, an accomplished motor racing driver, was injured competing in Formula 1 in 1960. Nash, who was “blind as a bat” and raced in glasses, took over as driver, with Dixon bringing up the rear.
“It was fun and exciting and an opportunity to get a cheap cap and I grabbed it,” he said. “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.”
“It’s a different world now with these professional sledders, eating, sleeping and drinking bobsleigh.”
For Dixon and Nash, it was whiskey they were drinking the night before their gold medal triumph, Robin confides. “Yes, we sipped a whiskey or two.
“We were focused and on the ball but come the evening there were other things to do and we got on with life,” he said.
By the time the 1964 Innsbruck Games came around, the pair had established themselves as a formidable team.
Going into the second day of competition, they were in the gold medal position after the first two runs, ahead of their Italian rivals who were favourites to win.
But when it seemed disaster had struck on the first run of the second day, one of the most generous and sporting gestures in Olympic history helped them get back on track.
A rear axle bolt on their sled had sheared off and they didn’t have a spare. That should have left the field clear for the Italians but in the spirit of a sporting era long gone, the Italian team captain stepped in to offer a replacement from their kit.
The gesture earned the Italian Eugenio Monti the Games’ inaugural fair play medal, named after Olympic founder Pierre de Coubertin. Even then, Dixon recalls: “On our last run we made a small mistake and I thought ‘that’s it’. 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. We just hugged each other. It was a great moment.”
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 — it flowed all day and the next, Dixon was back in uniform at his barracks in England.
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 Olympics, finishing fifth behind Monti.
By then, Dixon had left the Army, having also served with 3 Para and the SAS in the Cyprus and Borneo conflicts, and gone into business at home in Northern Ireland. “My family felt it was time I started contributing to the life of the province,” he explains.
Having previously worked for Kodak, he built Redland Tile and Brick Ltd into a multi million-pound subsidiary of Redland plc.
Appointed High Sheriff of Antrim in 1983, he was chair of Positively Belfast from 1992 to 1996, and a Shadow NI Minister on the Conservative benches for seven years.
Walking and reading are his more sedate pursuits back in the Ballyclare home he shares with wife Maggie.
He has three sons, Andrew, Patrick and the eldest Danny who is first in line to the title, Lord Glentoran.
And his 60-year friendship with bobsleigh partner Nash, who lives in Devon, still endures.
“We’re still great mates and have a ball when we get together,” says Robin.
Every four years, when the Winter Olympics come round, they are asked to retell their amazing story. “And I am very happy to do so,” adds Robin. “If it inspires just one young person to follow in our tracks and become a success, it is worthwhile.
“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.”