Given our climate and geography, any story involving British athletes seriously challenging for gold medals at Winter Olympics is going to be full of against-the-odds heroics, and this unlikely tale of how Robin Dixon and Tony Nash hurtled to Bobsleigh glory back in the 1960's is no exception.
The story of the Dixon-Nash partnership started in 1958 with Robin Dixon, on a skiing holiday in the Swiss resort of St Moritz whilst on service leave from the Bitish Army's Grenadier Guards. Dixon, the son of Baron Glentoran, a Northern Irish Politician, bumped into a cousin of his, John Lucan, who suggested Dixon have a try at bobsleighing before he left the resort. Dixon enjoyed it and discovered that he was actually pretty useful at it thanks to his sprinting (he could run 100 yards in less than 10 and a half seconds).
Having been brought to the attention of the British Bobsleigh Association, Dixon soon found himself competing at the World Championships as brake-man for the second-string British 4-man team. It wasn't a great start - they finished last by some distance, but things improved personally as Dixon was promoted to the number one bob.
Just a few weeks later, Dixon, again as brake-man, helped the 4-man British team claim 2nd place at the European Junior Championships. Dixon's driver in that team was Henry Taylor, a formidable racing car driver from Bedfordshire who would eventually reach Formula One status. Dixon was joined by Taylor the following season as members of one of the senior British teams, along with Taylor's friend Tony Nash. A fine set of world championship results saw them established as the number one British bob. However, just as the team were starting to be taken seriously by some of the other nations, Taylor was given the chance to further his real passion - motor racing. The opportunity to test himself at Forumla One level against the likes of Graham Hill, Jim Clark and Jack Brabham was too good to miss and he left the team.
Nash suggested that he replace Taylor as the bob's driver - a slightly controversial choice at the time as he had no experience as a front man and his eyesight was poor ! Nash had no formal training and just set about the task on his own but he soon showed enough promise to persuade Dixon that they should form a two man partnership. It looked like a good decision at their first championships at Lake Placid in 1961 when they led after the first two runs. They would eventually finish outside the medals in 6th place but it was a good start.
With no funding available and no lucrative sponsorship deals, Nash and Dixon had to raise all the money themselves with the help of family and friends. They travelled around the continent in an old Land Rover, and, thanks to Nash's friendship with some of the Italian bobsleigh team, they managed to pick up some of their old sleds. In fact, this Anglo-Italian friendship would prove key in their bid to achieve something major. The Italian Winter Sports Federation had recently set up a national centre in Cervinia and a year before the 1964 Winter Olympics the Italian team members persuaded their coaches and organisers to allow Dixon and Nash to train there, with Dixon later commenting that they effectively became the Italian's number three sled. It was a different world to the one they'd been used to - which normally involved motoring around the Alps struggling to squeeze in practice runs before the competitions. The Cervinia centre had a whole variety of brand new sleds, coaches, mechanics, even cooks. For the Italians to so generously help out one of their main rivals is almost unthinkable in today's age, but back then they were keen to help the British team as much as they could, despite it soon becoming obvious that Nash and Dixon were often as fast than their Italian counterparts.
The 1963 World Championships in Igls, Austria, would serve as a pre-runner for the Olympics and a good indicator of likely medallists. Gold and silver was taken by the Italian sleds as Eugenio Monti and Sergio Siorpaes took the top position, followed by Sergio Zardini and Romano Bonagura in second, with Dixon and Nash claiming bronze, their first major championship medal.
So as they headed to the 1964 Winter Olympics in Innsbruck, Austria, the gold was expected to be fought out between these three pairs and also the Austrians, who were naturally expected to be strong on home ice. Dixon and Nash recorded the fastest time after the first run but then disaster struck. A bolt that held the metal runners to the actual body of the sled had broken off. They had a number of spare parts in case something happened, but they didn't have a bolt to fit this. It looked like their Olympic dream was over after just a single run. But then came one of the great acts of Olympic sportsmanship... the driver of the Italian number one bob, Eugenio Monti, told Dixon and Nash that they could have the matching bolt from his sled after he'd done his run. And true enough, as soon as Monti finished his run, the bolt was taken off his sled and rushed up to the start and connected to the British sled. They finished the day just in front of the Italian who had just kept their Olympics dreams alive.
After run 3 they'd slipped down to 2nd place, behind the other Italian bob, with the generous Monti back in 3rd place. Their final run was actually their worst, and as they waited they thought their chances had gone, so retired to a café for a schnapps and waited for the bad news to arrive. However, some good news broke that the course had started to slow down, suddenly Zardini had lost his lead and slipped back into the silver medal position, whilst Monti held on to bronze.
Both Nash and Dixon, ecstatic with their win, stated their disbelief at what Monti had done, with Dixon joking that he would have tried to stop the Italian rather than help him if the situations had been reversed. Nash and Dixon took the glory of the gold medal but Monti wasn't forgotten - awarded the honour of the Pierre de Coubertin award for fair play (incredibly, Monti and his mechanics had also helped the Canadian 4-man team by repairing their axle!). Dixon and Nash also competed in the four-man bob alongside David Lewis and Guy Renwick but had less success, finishing 12th.
The pair would take gold again in the 1965 World Championships, ahead of a different Italian pairing of Rinaldo Ruatti, Enrico de Lorenzo, with the Canadians in 3rd. A year later they took bronze in the World Championships at Cortina d'Ampezzo, Italy, but were pleased to see their old mate Monti take gold in front of his home fans. Monti would also get further reward in the 1968 Olympics, claiming double gold in the 2 man and 4 man event, whilst Dixon and Nash could not retain their title but claimed a respectable 5th, whilst they also finished 8th in the four-man bob alongside Guy Renwick and Robin Widdows.
Despite bobsleighing being a minority sport in the UK, the pair's success has not gone unheralded. Both were inducted into the British Bobsleigh Hall of Fame, whilst Dixon, under the title of Lord Glentoran, has been president of the British Bobsleigh Association since 1987 and has served as a Shadow Minister for a number of areas, most recently as the Conservative Shadow Minister for the Olympics.
Internationally, the story of the partnership is well known in the alpine countries where the sport of bobsleighing is so popular, and back in St Moritz where the story started, turns 5 and 6 of the world's oldest bobsleigh and skeleton track, the St. Moritz-Celerina Olympia Bobrun, are named Nash-Dixon in honour of the pair.
As with many of these great old Olympic stories, where champions battled against the odds and with limited resources, you're unlikely to get many of these tales again. With Britain unable to compete financially against the traditional winter giants in sports that we consider non-mainstream, and with restrictions from governing bodies making it ever harder for people to compete, it may be a long time before Britain produces another Dixon and Nash.