Above: Rod Dixon in the 1500m final at the Munich Olympic Games in 1972. Photo by Getty Images.
As New Zealand prepares to send a full complement of three athletes for the men’s 1500m for the first time in Olympic Games history. Steve Landells reflects with Rod Dixon on his breakthrough bronze medal won over the metric mile at the 1972 Munich Olympics.
Rod Dixon can pinpoint the exact moment his journey to the 1500m podium truly began.
Aged 20 at the time, the Nelson-based runner had just returned from a promising performance at the 1971 World Cross Country Championships in San Sebastian in Spain, where he had finished tenth in the individual senior race.
At that point many assumed his best chances of qualification for the following year’s Munich Olympics lie in the 5000m, but Dixon was insistent.
“I looked at John (Dixon’s coach and brother) and said, ‘I want to follow Jack Lovelock’s footsteps and run the 1500m’,” he recalls. “John then replied, ‘that makes life a lot easier. You are now locked into that pathway. You are committed, the rest is up to you’.”
Committed he may have been but when he made the decision to target the Olympic 1500m back in March 1971, it still appeared a distant goal. Up until that point he had never broken 3:50 for the 1500m or four minutes for the mile let along placed in a 1500m at a New Zealand Championships. He also faced a powerful domestic challenge in the event led by Tony Polhill, the British 1500m champion.
“I was definitely on the bottom rung of the ladder,” he admits.
Undaunted by the size of the challenge and training under the high-mileage Lydiard-style regime in the upper South Island city of Nelson, he describes his journey to Munich as full of “highs and lows.” Yet it was during this training stint he and his brother discovered a crucial element to maximising his athletic potential.
“Understanding I tended to perform better doing longer runs rather than beating myself up on the track was key,” says Dixon. “Once we decided to peel back that anaerobic threshold training, I started to perform better.”
In early 1972 he made a significant breakthrough by cracking the four-minute barrier for the first time in Wanganui – with a 3:58.2 clocking. Then at the National Championships in Hamilton, Dixon gave further notice of his new-found class to miss out on 1500m gold in a photo-finish with Polhill.
As impressive as his season had been, Dixon – unlike Polhill – had yet to achieve the Olympic qualification mark so when he entered the Olympic Trials at Mt Smart Stadium he knew he needed to produce something special to convince selectors of his worth.
In an astutely run race and with the support of his brother and coach, who effectively paced the race, Dixon claimed the race in a PB of 3:41.2 and crucially achieved the qualification mark. He was on his way to Munich.
Describing life in the Olympic Village as like a “sports wonderland” he was blown away by the experience in Munich.
“It was pretty overwhelming and incredibly inspiring,” he recalls. “I shared a room with the three marathons runners; Terry Manners, Dave McKenzie and Jack Foster and I used to do my longer runs with them.”
Ranked 43nd in his event there was little expectation from the New Zealand public. Yet on the morning before his first round heat the mood in Munich was to swiftly darken after he saw what appeared to be a man in a balaclava with a gun on the balcony of where the Israeli team were based.
“I said to Terry Manners, I thought I saw one of the Israeli rifle shooters with a gun having a joke,” he recalls of the incident which happened just 20m away from where the New Zealand team were housed. “But then about five to ten minutes later we got a knock on the door saying the Israeli compound was under siege and that people had been killed. We were told to grab our passports and get out.”
In “total shock” Dixon his fellow Kiwis and all the other teams were corralled in an area of the Olympic Village guarded by the army and police while negotiations took place between the terrorists and police and army. Some three to four hours later Dixon and the athletes were told they were clear to return. However, under the impression that the terrorists had been taken to the airport the full horror emerged that not only 11 members of the Israeli team were murdered along with a German Police officer but five of the member of the Black September terrorists were killed during a failed rescue attempt.
Living close to the Israeli team in the Olympic Village, Dixon had got to know an Israeli race walker and weightlifter during his time in the Village. The full scale and horror of the massacre took some time to process.
“It was very upsetting,” recalls Dixon of the tragic incident. “It was like, this is our Olympic Games, how dare they (the terrorists) do this? There was talk the Games would be cancelled but the Israeli’s made it clear the Games must continue. They said Israeli’s live with this fear every day of their lives and I found that very disturbing.”
Yet after the initial horror of events in Munich the mood changed to respect the wishes of the Israeli team and after a day’s delay to the programme on September 8, Dixon lined up for his heat of the 1500m alongside defending champion Kip Keino of Kenya and America’s world record holder Jim Ryun of the US.
“Just four years earlier, I listened to the Olympic 1500m final at the Mexico City Games featuring Keino and Ryun on a transistor radio and it was hard to believe here I was in the same heat as them at Munich,” says Dixon.
Ryun has been highly fancied to strike gold four years earlier at the high altitude Mexico City Games only to have to settle for silver behind Keino. Then in his Munich qualification heat he took a fatal tumble on the penultimate lap. As he crashed to the track he clipped the calf of Dixon only for the tall Kiwi to take some nimble action to avoid the same fate.
Running with a new level of belief he survived the scare to accelerate strongly from the crown of the bend to finish half-a-stride behind Keino to advance to the semi-finals in a new PB of 3:40.0.
With rising confidence, the then 21-year-old Kiwi showed similar class in the semi-final. Running alongside the Finn Pekka Vasala the pair shared the winning time of 3:37.9 – with Dixon dismantling his previous best by a further 2.1 seconds.
Ahead of a keenly anticipated final on the final day of track and field competition he recalls putting his tracksuit in the number three box. It was to prove prescient.
In an outstanding display by the novice Dixon, he sat perfectly poised on the shoulder of leader Keino with 800m remaining. By the bell he had slipped to fourth only to regain third by the 300m mark.
Kenyan Mike Boit passed him midway round the final stretch but Dixon was to respond and regained third midway down the home straight. Finishing as fast as anyone in the field he crossed the line to secure bronze in 3:37.5 – his third PB in successive days – behind gold medal winner Vasala and Keino.
Describing the moment of winning bronze as “unbelievable” Dixon was beyond elated.
“The media said I was the happiest bronze medallist ever and I was probably happier than Vasala,” he recalls. “It was a huge thing. I looked up in the stands and the New Zealanders were going wild. Not long after the marathon runners, Manners, McKenzie and Foster, came into the stadium and it was nice to share the moment with those guys.”
Within five days of his bronze medal he further cemented his new status by defeating American Steve Prefontaine to win the two miles at Crystal Palace in a time of 8:19.4.
He returned home to Nelson to receive a ticker-tape parade as he went on to embark on an international career which included two further Olympic appearances in 1976 (5000m fourth) and 1984 (marathon 10th) a world cross country bronze medal and a New York Marathon triumph in 1983.
Yet if the Big Apple was to later represented his crowning glory his international story began when winning bronze at the Olympic Stadium in Munich. A moment Dixon describes with no sense of understatement as when “I suddenly came of age.”