This piece was first published in 2013
John Jackson. Remember the name, because come the Winter Olympics at Sochi next February, it is possible that he will be as close to a household name that his chosen sport can muster. The ex-Royal Marine Commando is a bobsleigh driver and recently he piloted the British four-man bob team to a Silver medal in the World Cup at Lake Placid, Britain’s first podium place since 1997. And, as Tony Nash, one of the sport's legendary drivers, told me: ‘It was a remarkable achievement because he isn’t even fully fit yet’ - Jackson took the medal in the aftermath of a ruptured Achilles tendon.
The driver is the focus of attention in bobsleigh (or bobsled as the Americans would have it) because, once the other three (or one, in the case of the two-man bob) have helped with the explosive push at the start, they effectively become mere passengers for the descent. It is the pilot’s ability to read the track, to extract every ounce of speed from a straight and to find the fastest line on a bend that makes the difference between Silver and Gold. And it can be a very small margin – Jackson was 0.07 seconds off the top step of that podium.
There is a palpable sense of excitement among Britain’s bobsleigh fraternity, an unspoken hope that this somewhat Cinderella sport (except for a brief blaze of interest around the time of the highly fictionalized Cool Runnings movie) might once more return to the national spotlight, as it did in 1964. That was a golden moment in every sense, when a GB team, a pair of underdogs, beat the best in the world – a real Chariots of Fire scenario, except on ice and with a real danger of death or injury.
As in Vancouver 2010, the Winter Olympics at Innsbruck in 1964 suffered from a dearth of snow. In Canada they helicoptered the stuff in. In ‘64, the Austrian army used human chains to bring down vast quantities of powder from the upper slopes of the Tirol Mountains and snow cannons were brought over from the USA. With just days to go they had managed enough coverage to declare the skiing courses perfectly adequate and the bobsleigh track just about acceptable. However, a snowfall was forecast – which, strangely, caused the bobsleighers even more gloom: fresh snow clogs sled runners, reducing speed over the ice.
The British two-man bob team consisted of driver Tony Nash and his brakeman Robin Dixon and, after a good showing at the previous year’s World Cup, there were some who dared hope they might grab a medal from under the noses of the Italians or the Canadians. The bluff and fearless Nash had a brewing and engineering background; Dixon, who suffered badly from race-day nerves until the moment of competition, was actually Thomas Valerian Dixon, 3rd Baron Glentoran and a major in the Grenadier Guards. He was considered an oddity because he trained hard for the few seconds of the event’s push start – even strapping Brillo pads under his shoes for extra grip on the ice (spikes were banned at that time; pan scourers weren’t).
Both men had spent many hours away from home, training on the original 1902 natural ice bobsleigh course in St Moritz, the spiritual home of British winter sports - with a legendary hard-drinking, hard-skiing expat population - and with the Italians at the Cortina d’Ampezzo course. At the latter resort Nash, in particular, had partied with Eugenio Monti, the best bobsleigh pilot in the world, and absorbed many useful lessons.
Nash and Dixon were well aware of how much pressure was on them from home. Although the British were instrumental in the development of bobsleighing and skiing as competitive sports, success in the Winter Games had eluded the national team for many years. In the early ‘60s bobsleigh medal tables were dominated by Italy, Switzerland and the USA, with the Germans and Canadians hot on their runners. But winter sports was now on the radar of the TV audience in Great Britain, helped by the fact that terrible winters had meant the cancellation of many home-grown sporting events – the football fixtures and race cards were often decimated. Winter sports provided a reliable alternative and the public soon warmed to the more death-defying elements of the coverage – ski-jump for its apparently insane leaps into thin air and bobsleigh because, with its dizzying speeds and risk of serious injury, it was closer to motor sport than other Alpine sports. So in '64 the BBC decided to televise the Winter Games for the first time.
Consequently, for the first time since the Winter Olympics started in 1924, all British eyes were on the event, held at the fearsome new bobsleigh track at Igls, to southeast of Innsbruck, which during the World Championship of ’63 had put ten bobbers in hospital. The track was 1500 metres long, with 14 turns and a vertical drop of 138 metres, capable of propelling a sled to more than 75 mph. As if to emphasize the hazardous nature of the sport, just before the opening ceremony a British luger died when he left the chute (there was a separate luge track) and landed on concrete.
Still, death was an accepted risk in any form of competitive tobogganing. After a respectful silence, the show went on. Bobsleigh is decided on an aggregation of four timed runs and at the end of the first one, the British duo had clocked a time of 1.05.15, beaten only by the Canadians.
It seemed those dark horses, the Brits – who, remember, hailed from a country without a bobsleigh track - were in with a real chance of a medal. Nash and Dixon, though, knew that Eugenio Monti wasn’t going to take the challenge from his British friends lying down. He would use all his fearsome skills to push his way up the leader board. So the British duo had to up their own game for the second run. But disaster struck. On inspecting their Italian-built Podar sled, Nash discovered that a bolt holding the rear axle had sheared. And they couldn’t find a spare. The nearest was back at the workshop and by the time that was fetched, they would have missed their slot in the second heat. Britain’s Olympic hopes looked to be melting away faster than the Austrian snow. But help came from an unexpected source.
Word of the British team’s woes reached Eugenio Monti and he came up with a solution. He was scheduled to go ahead of them in the second heat. When he had completed his descent, he said, he would undo the equivalent bolt on his Podar sled and get it up to the Brits at the top of the course. ‘It was,’ says Nash now, ‘a magnificent gesture.’
True to his word, as soon as he had crossed the finish line (with a time that took him to first place), Monti flipped the Podar and his brakeman began undoing the bolt. It was raced up to the British pair who went on to beat Monti’s time by thirteen-hundredths of a second. GB was in the lead, thanks to the Italian.
Then the snow finally arrived and in sticky conditions Nash and Dixon had a pretty poor third run. The snow, however, stopped and a thaw set in – again causing dismay because of the slush that would result. Going early in heat four put the Brits at an advantage and they managed a decent if not spectacular run. Convinced it wasn’t good enough, the pair retired to the bar, hoping they might scrape a bronze. But the unthinkable happened – the great Monti had a terrible run, as did the Canadians and the other Italian team.
Nash and Dixon heard the news while commiserating with each other about bad luck and fickle weather– they had won the Gold for GB. Tony Nash instantly set about getting spectacularly drunk, with Dixon trying to keep him sober enough for the medal ceremony and the inevitable TV interview with an over-excited David Coleman (there were cold baths throughout the day – for Nash, not Coleman). Monti, who in his career amassed ten World Championship and six Olympic medals in bobsleighing, had finished a disappointing third. The Italian press hounded Monti, claiming he had handed the British duo the victory. Monti was adamant: ‘Tony Nash did not win because I gave him a bolt. Tony Nash won because he was the best driver.’
For that piece of sportsmanship (which was not a one-off - he also helped the Canadians repair their axle in the four-man event, and they went on to win Gold, too) Eugenio Monti was awarded the first ever Pierre de Coubertin Medal (aka the International Fair Play Award). When the Olympia Bob Run St Moritz-Celerina was refurbished in 2010, Turn 4a was christened Monti’s Bolt in honour of the Italian’s magnanimous gesture. The corner immediately after is called Nash-Dixon.
But that isn’t quite the end of the story. As first recorded in the excellent book Gold Run: Britain’s Great Bobsleigh Victory by Brian Belton - and also recently confirmed to me by Tony Nash himself - Nash and Dixon didn’t actually use Monti’s bolt. By the time the spare part reached the British team, they had already sourced a replacement. But, as Nash says, ‘it didn’t detract from the wonderful gesture’, so the pair decided to let the story stand. Ravaged by Parkinson’s disease, Monti committed suicide in his beloved Dolomites in 2003, never knowing the truth of what happened at those Olympics. By keeping quiet, Nash and Dixon had made a remarkable sporting gesture of their own.
It is unlikely there will be anything like the same cliffhanger at Sochi. As with all Olympic events, the sport of bobsleighing has changed significantly since Innsbruck ‘64, with sleds now made from hi-tech material, designed in wind tunnels, equipped with timing transponders and supplied with masses of spare parts. The drivers’ and brakemen's regimes have altered, too, since the days when a ‘training session’ might mean a bar crawl in St Moritz – they now prepare their mind and bodies as thoroughly as any other Olympic athlete (Nash once commented: 'I understand they use a sports psychologist now, whatever that is. If things got tense we would retire to a bottle of whisky.')
But when Jackson and his team step up to the start of the bobsleigh run at Sochi, it will still be the same terrifying men versus ice contest that Nash and Dixon faced 50 years previously. And it won’t just be the shades of Nash and Dixon watching over him – both are still with us, the elder statesmen of British bobsleighing, and the pair will be hoping Jackson emulates their feat of half a century ago by bringing home a Gold for Great Britain.
* Robert Ryan is the author of The Dead Can Wait (Simon & Schuster), a novel featuring Dr Watson; he is currently working on a TV script about Eugenio Monti and Nash and Dixon’s Gold run.