Rod Dixon was arguably the most versatile runner ever produced by New Zealand.
Among his accomplishments: A bronze medal in the 1972 Olympic 1500m, two third placings in the world cross-country champs, nine years apart and claiming victory in the 1983 New York marathon. A remarkable 17-year career as a New Zealand representative.Read more
Rod Dixon was arguably the most versatile runner ever produced by New Zealand.
Among his accomplishments: A bronze medal in the 1972 Olympic 1500m, two third placings in the world cross-country champs, nine years apart and claiming victory in the 1983 New York marathon. A remarkable 17-year career as a New Zealand representative.
Five years in the early 1980s when he was the No 1 runner on the competitive and lucrative American road racing circuit.
Despite such feats, the tall, angular Dixon became nearly as famous for his near-misses. In 1974 at the Christchurch Commonwealth Games, he ran the fifth fastest 1500m of all time, 3min 33.89s. Yet he finished out of the medals as Filbert Bayi and John Walker in front both went under Jim Ryun's previous world mark.
At the 1976 Montreal Olympic Games, he took part in one of the greatest races in Games history, but finished only fourth in the 5000m, deprived of a medal by the unmatchable Lasse Viren, his fellow New Zealander Dick Quax and the desperate last-metre dive of German Klaus-Peter Hildenbrand.
There were other heart-breaking episodes. In 1978 he was in superlative form but was denied the chance to challenge Henry Rono for the Edmonton Commonwealth Games 5000m gold medal when someone stole his gear bag just before the race. In 1980 he missed out on the Moscow Olympics because of the American-led boycott.
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."
Dixon had to overcome a twisted ankle in the week before the Olympics started, but still improved with every race in Munich. His successive 1500m times were 3min 40s.0, 3min 37.9s and, in the final, 3min 37.5s, which broke Peter Snell’s New Zealand record.
Dixon was involved in a second dramatic Olympic race four years later when he lost the 5000m bronze medal by the barest of margins.
Viren and Quax had locked up the gold and silver sprinting down the final straight, but it seemed as if Dixon would claim the bronze until Klaus-Peter Hildenbrand dived at the finishing line and edged him out.
"I'd finished that race feeling devastated. My world had fallen about me. I gathered up my gear, ran all the way back to the village, up 15 flights of stairs and into my room, and burst into tears.
"Going into the games I was extremely confident. I'd been ranked number one in the world over 5000 metres in 1975, and my form in Europe in 1976 had been great. I struck a very tough heat. Brendan Foster was determined to make it fast. I think he was worried about the kickers. I didn’t want to go with him, but every time I looked around I’d see a wall of runners behind me. I had to keep my foot down to ensure I qualified. We ended up running 13 minutes 21 seconds, which was the Olympic record. I knew it had weakened me a little, but there was nothing I could do about it.
"I was still feeling I would win, though, and with 800 metres to go in the final I thought I had the field covered. I knew Quax well. He was a great athlete, but he’d had a bout of food poisoning, so couldn’t be 100 percent, and anyway, I was confident I could outkick him. I’d raced Viren seven times and beaten him every time. I respected his ability to rise to the occasion, but I didn’t think he was on a different level to the rest of us any more and was sure I’d beat him in a last-lap sprint.
"At the bell I was well-positioned. I moved up alongside Viren, and Hildenbrand went with me. Then Quax shot past going into the turn. Suddenly I panicked. I’d gone from feeling in control to suddenly being third and having Hildenbrand breathing down my neck. I felt fear and tightened up, losing my rhythm. I got into lane three and tried to take them all around the turn. As I came up the home straight the old bear got me, jumped right on my back. I was carrying it and started to go backwards just when I should have been going forward.
“I still felt sure the bronze was mine, because you’ve got that 190-degree vision and there was no-one looming, so I knew my nose was still ahead. Then right on the line I saw a flash. Hildenbrand flashed across the line with me. I still felt I’d got my chest across the line first. He dived across the line and I thought maybe his head got there first, but I expected to still get the bronze. There was some discussion about the fact that he hadn’t gone through the line a metre off the ground. His feet were still down the track when my body crossed the line. There was quite a wait, then an official pointed at him.
“I felt instant depression. I wanted a replay. I didn’t want to leave. I’d messed it up and wanted to do it again. I knew I was better than that. It was a truly shattering experience, indescribable. Two days later, when John Walker won his race and I saw his medal, I thought, ‘Boy, I could have had one of those, too’. It took me about two years before I really got over it.”
Dixon went into the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic marathon as one of the favourites after his brilliant run the previous year at New York, and ran creditably, but not outstandingly for 10th.
He was such a brilliant runner on the American road circuit, and such an impressive winner of the 1983 New York marathon (in 2h 8min 59s) that, in New Zealanders’ eyes anyway, he was a pre-race favourite for the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic marathon.
In that marathon field there were superstars like Robert de Castella (Australia), Carlos Lopes (Portugal), Juma Ikangaa (Tanzania) and Toshihiko Seko (Japan). Seven of the starters had run faster than 2h 9min. But to New Zealanders, Dixon was the man.
When Dixon finished 10th, in 2h 12min 57s, he was labelled a failure by some of the media. This seemed harsh - he’d still performed very creditably in this most taxing of events. Dixon had an interesting angle on his performance. “I wasn’t brilliant,” he said. “I spent so long celebrating and being fêted after winning the New York marathon in 1983 that I didn’t really buckle down to training for the Olympics until February 1984, and it turned out that left me about six weeks short on preparation.
“Even so, I thought I put in a pretty good performance. I was 2.9 percent off my best performance. If an athlete gets within 5 percent of his best at an Olympics you’ve got to say he’s done really well. A few journalists got into me afterwards, but I was getting pretty long in the tooth by that stage of my career and was not too worried about what the journalists said any more!”
Dixon, along with John Walker and Dick Quax, was at the forefront of one of the great eras of New Zealand athletics. After leaving the athletics circuit, he continued running with huge success at world masters level.
He grew up in Nelson, where he was coached by his older brother John, a good athlete himself. Dixon realised early on he wanted to make a career out of running. He used to say: “Running is my business and my business is my running.”
Dixon was always of an entrepreneurial bent. After he finished running, he became a coach and organised several major fun runs and marathons. These days he lives in Los Angeles and is director of training for the Los Angeles Marathon.
Dixon was inducted into the New Zealand Sports Hall of Fame in 1996.
Rod's Games History
Olympic Summer Games Los Angeles 1984
- Athletics (Marathon - Men) Placed 10
Commonwealth Games Edmonton 1978
Olympic Summer Games Montreal 1976
Commonwealth Games Christchurch 1974
- Athletics (1500m - Men) Placed 4
Olympic Summer Games Munich 1972
- Athletics (1500m - Men) 3