Rod Dixon wins Bronze in Munich 1972
Dixon was always a colourful and extroverted character. He certainly needed some self-belief when he turned up at his first Olympics, in Munich, in 1972, a fresh-faced 21-year-old on only his second trip outside New Zealand.
“I was running the 1500 metres,” he recalled. “I didn’t have a great qualifying time. I think I was ranked 47th in the world. In my heat, with the first two to qualify, were Jim Ryun and Kip Keino. This was pretty daunting.
“Jim Ryun was the world record-holder and already a legend. Kip Keino was the defending Olympic champion and the first of the great African track runners. I’d had their colour posters on my bedroom wall in Nelson for years. I recalled listening to the 1968 Olympic 1500 metres final – the showdown between Ryun and Keino – on my transistor in Nelson. I was so taken by it that I had goosebumps all over my body and decided I wanted to be an Olympian too. “Four years later, there I was standing on the start line for my first heat in Munich and on my right was Keino and on my left was Ryun.
“There was confusion over Ryun’s Olympic qualifying time – a mile time instead of a 1500-metre time was submitted. It left the two of them in one race and people like me with what you would have to say was an uphill battle!
“It’s history now what happened. During the race Jim tripped and fell. His foot brushed against my right calf. Even now, when I see Jim, or even think about him, I feel a twinge in that calf. I finished the heat running stride for stride with Keino and qualified for the semi-final.” Dixon ran 3min 40s, which was astonishing considering his previous best was 3min 42s-plus.
“In the semis it was another really strong field, with several excellent European runners, like Brendan Foster and Pekka Vasala. But I felt very confident and with 110 metres to go there I was at the front with Vasala.” Dixon finished the semi with the fastest time, 3min 37.9s.
“I was given some confidence before the final when Arthur Lydiard and Bill Baillie came to the village and spoke to me very confidently about my chances. They really helped me believe in myself. Athol Earl, who’d won a rowing gold medal, let me hold his medal. I didn’t want to put it around my neck, just touch it. That helped too. “I had a good omen just before the final when I was handed bin No 3 for all my gear. I hoped that meant I’d be among the medals.
“I keyed in on Keino and wanted to make sure that I used my strength by ensuring the third lap was tough. The race went pretty well and with 110 metres to go I was going okay, still close to Keino. Then Mike Boit [of Kenya] went past and I was pushed back to fourth. I ran wide around the bend and passed Boit, so I was back into a medal position.
“Up the home straight I realised that while I would never catch Vasala, I was gaining on the great Keino. Vasala had too big a lead, but it was a shock to realise I’d been closing in on him.
“I finished the race with my arms thrust in the air in triumph. It was the same expression of elation that Paul-Heinz Wellmann showed when he was third behind John Walker in the 1976 1500m final. There’s a world of difference between third and fourth.
“On the victory dais I could still hardly believe what had happened. I was in shock, and I was so happy I had tears in my eyes. A newspaper heading said ‘Dixon in Wonderland’ and that’s what the whole experience was like for me.”