Looking into the history of the Winter Olympics, my attention was drawn to the events of the bobsleigh in 1964. There was plenty of booze. There was some highly impressive sportsmanship. And, of course, there was a British gold medal…
Back then, the Winter Olympics – the ninth holding of the winter games – were held at Innsbruck in Austria. 1091 athletes from 36 nations took part (compare that, if you will, with the statistics for the 2018 games which tell us that 2952 athletes from 92 countries are participating). From a British perspective, 1964 was the first time the BBC opted to televise the Winter Olympics (improvements in TV technology presumably combining with the fact that the nation’s sporting schedules had been decimated the year before in the Big Freeze of ’63). Prior to the games, there were concerns about an unseasonal lack of snow, which resulted in the Austrian Army being called on to carry snow from the higher ground to the ski slopes. Sadly, tragedy struck before the games had even started, with two athletes – an Australian skier and a British luger – being killed on practice runs before the opening ceremony. The latter was a Polish-born ex-RAF pilot called Kazimierz Kay-Skrzyppecki; according to Wikipedia, he was in his fifties at the time.
Then as now, particular attention was paid by the Beeb to any event in which the British might stand a chance of winning a medal (something that hadn’t been done by Great Britain at the Winter Olympics since 1952). Just one such event stood out – the bobsleigh, especially the two-man event in which Tony Nash and Robin Dixon had finished third at the previous year’s World Championships.
Bobsleigh, which had not featured at the 1960 Winter Olympics for the first and only time, was dominated in the Sixties by European nations, most notably Italy and Germany (there were two Germanies then, but prior to 1968 they competed jointly in the Olympics as the ‘United Team of Germany’), although the Austrian and Swiss teams were also much-fancied, as were those of Canada and the USA. Going into the 1964 games, the Italians were the reigning World Champions in both the two-man and four-man events (women’s bobsleigh would not become a Winter Olympic sport until 2002).
Both of the British bobsleighers had got into the sport via the British Army, albeit in very different ways. Amersham-born Nash had taken it up while doing his National Service and had kept involved afterwards, receiving financial backing from his father – he worked for his family’s brewing company – as part of a deal whereby he wouldn’t take up motor racing which Nash senior reckoned to be far too dangerous. Dixon, meanwhile, was an Old Etonian Grenadier Guards officer who had got into bobsleigh in 1957 following a chat about winter sports with his cousin, John Bingham, while on an Army skiing holiday in St Moritz. He had a go, and was hooked (both cousins, by the way, were sons of peers who would go on to inherit their fathers’ titles; Dixon as the third Baron Glentoran, Bingham as the seventh Earl of Lucan; yes, that one). They were originally part of a four-man team, but things changed in 1961 when the team’s pilot, Henry Taylor, was injured in an accident at the British Grand Prix (he was also a Formula One driver, although following said crash he went into rallying instead). From then on, Nash took over the piloting duties despite his short-sightedness which required him to wear glasses or contact lenses while competing, and they started to compete together in the two-man event while also making up half of the British four-man team.
This was a changing time for bobsleigh. Thanks largely to the Italians, the bobsleighs themselves were becoming more technologically advanced and, although it was still an amateur sport, it was beginning to get more professionally organised. There was also a conscious effort on the part of the Italians to get some of the non-alpine countries more involved; then as now, friendships developed among competitors, and in particular Nash’s growing friendship with the Italian pilot, Eugenio Monti, paid dividends. “In 1963, the Italians had built a new run in Cervinia very similar to the Olympic run in Innsbruck, with three very big S-curves,” Dixon later recalled. “Tony and I were in St Moritz and they invited us over to open the run with them ... a very good start to the season.” 1963 saw the British pair come third in the World Championship at Igls; the Italians took first and second.
At the Innsbruck Winter Olympics, Dixon and Nash – part of a British contingent that consisted of 27 men and nine women – shared a room at the Olympic Village. They spent the evening before the first day of the bobsleigh competition listening to records and drinking whisky; different times, the Sixties.
Day one saw the first two runs, after which the British pair found themselves in the lead; they had not done the fastest run – Monti and his partner Sergio Siorpaes had done that – but it was the total time over all of the runs that counted. The final two runs would be held the following day, and it looked as though everyone was going to be slightly slower as there was a fresh fall of snow over the course overnight (“we didn’t drink too much whisky that night, I can tell you,” Dixon later admitted). After their first run on the second day, disaster loomed as they discovered that a rear axle bolt had sheared off; they didn’t have a spare, and if they couldn’t find one they wouldn’t be able to do their fourth run. It looked like their Olympic effort would end there and then, but salvation appeared in the unlikely form of one of their competitors – Nash’s friend, Eugenio Monti of Italy, offered to take the bolt from his bobsleigh after he’d competed his run and give it to them.
“Eugenio was on the line about to do his run,” Dixon later recalled, “but he came across and said, ‘Don’t worry. Send an Englishman down to meet me and you can have mine’.” Monti’s lending of a vital component to a serious competitor would go down as one of the most selfless acts in Winter Olympic history. However, it was not until years later that it became known that Monti’s bolt was actually not used on the British bobsleigh – after finishing his third run he had removed it from his own bobsleigh and had it sent up to the start for the British team to use, but before it got there they’d managed to find another one.
By the time Dixon and Nash did their fourth run, the snow that had fallen on the course was turning to slush and the pair were unhappy with their descent. Convinced they’d blown their chances, they did what any self-respecting amateur sportsmen would do and went off to drown their sorrows. “We went to a hut near the finish and had a coffee and schnapps and thought, ‘well played, but not well played’,” recalled Dixon. “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.” Over the four runs, they’d been 0.12 of a second faster than their nearest competitors, the Italian ‘second’ team of Sergio Zardini and Romano Bonagura. Monti and Siorpaes were third. They duly switched from schnapps to champagne.
That evening, there was one final hurdle for the British pair – getting into the presentation ceremony. Security was tight and they couldn’t find a way into the stadium. Then they saw someone they knew – the sixth Marquis of Exeter, at the time the Vice-President of the International Olympic Committee (back in the 1928 summer games, he’d won the gold medal in the mens’ 400-metre hurdles). They asked him how to get in. “Don’t worry, chaps,” came the reply. “They can’t start without us. You’re getting the medals and I’m giving them to you.”
Having collected his bronze medal, Monti faced heavy criticism from the Italian press for his sportsmanship; his response was very much in keeping with his actions: “Nash didn’t win because I gave him the bolt. He won because he had the fastest run.” His generosity on this occasion was by no means a one-off. In the four-man event, he and his mechanics helped to fix a damaged axle on the Canadian bobsleigh; the Canadians went on to win gold, with Monti and his team taking the bronze (the British four-man team, which included Nash and Dixon, came in 12th). Monti’s sportsmanship did not go unrecognised, for in addition to his medals, he was also awarded the then newly-inaugurated Pierre de Coubertin Medal for those whose sportsmanship exemplifies the Olympic ideal – the first living person to be so honoured.
Dixon and Nash, who like all British gold medal-winning Olympians were subsequently awarded MBEs as well, would go on to win the World Championship the following year at St Moritz. They also competed at the 1968 Winter Olympics, finishing fifth with Monti getting the gold (after four runs it was actually a dead heat between the Italians and the West Germans for first place; initially it was decided to give both teams the gold, as would later happen in 1998 and as has happened in 2018, but this was later changed, with the Italians being given first place on the grounds that they’d done the quickest single run). Eugenio Monti, who died in 2003, is now remembered not just as a true sportsman but as one of the most successful bobsleighers ever, with six Olympic medals (two of each colour) and nine World Championship wins to his name.
Sources: BBC, Wikipedia
Sources: BBC, Wikipedia