Michele Hewitson interview: Rod Dixon

By Michele Hewitson

Olympic athlete has found that getting kids into running is a better reward than the gold medal that got away

Former Olympic runner Rod Dixon still has strong views on just about everything, but he's mellowed since his 'naughty' days. Photo / Gerg Bowker
Former Olympic runner Rod Dixon still has strong views on just about everything, but he's mellowed since his 'naughty' days. Photo / Gerg Bowker

Bronze medal-winning former Olympian and New York Marathon winner Rod Dixon lives in Los Angeles, but he was in town for his Rod Dixon's Kids Marathon. Would I like to talk to him? I was happy to try.

He could talk the hind legs off a bray of donkeys, not to mention anyone he happens to meet, anywhere in the world. Presidents and famous film directors. Some chap called Arthur Ashe he happened to be sitting next to on a plane. A chap at the dairy, no doubt. His good mate, Burt Bacharach. Me. Any ear will do.

He is known for having opinions and not being afraid of expressing his opinions, which has meant New Zealand has had a love-hate relationship with him. He's a great runner: Peter Snell once said that his bronze was equal to Snell's own gold which - when I told him this - made him go uncharacteristically quiet. "Phew!" was all he could manage. But he also has a reputation for being a malcontent, a brash bloke in times when you shut up and if you said anything at all, it was the equivalent of "aw, shucks". He does, by the way, a brilliant impersonation of Colin Meads aw shucksing it up on the paddock.

He is not an aw shucks kind of character. He can be counted on to have a strong view, on anything from the weather (it's just weather, shut up about it) to a certain boat race (ditto). He did rather have a habit of falling out with people, including his great friend John Walker, who he loves. They didn't speak for 18 months but then he phoned him and said 'this is stupid', and they went out for lunch, and talked for hours. I bet I know who did most of the talking.

He once phoned Robert Muldoon about the boycott of the 1980 Olympic Games. He wanted to explain that he had not, as a newspaper headline claimed, called the Prime Minister an "ass". He had called him an "asshole".

He told me the publicist had said she would give him a briefing on me. He had said, in his emphatic way, which is his only way, that no, she would not - he didn't want to meet me with any preconceived ideas. He'd make up his own mind. He makes up his own mind pretty much on the spot and if he doesn't like you, watch out.

Luckily he seemed to decide, on the spot, that I was all right. Luckily, because if he likes you, he is as generous and entertaining and charming an interviewee as anyone could wish for. You may need a little lie-down afterwards, but it's worth it. Also, he awarded me (I went off clanking) two of his replica medals - which are handed out to his foundation kids.

I, of course, had plenty of preconceived ideas about him because I'd spent two days reading about him. I didn't come across a story in which anyone wrote: Rod Dixon is an absolute darling - because he wasn't.

He is these days. Oh, he's still opinionated and competitive - he likes nothing better than to take on some younger upstart on an expensive mountain bike and "just bury him". The difference is, I think, that he at last likes himself because he is at last so much easier to like.

He's 63. He doesn't think he'll make old, lean, runner's bones. He thinks he'll only go for another 30 years. He used to think he was Superman, but he's cured of that now - as you can tell by his prediction of his imminently early demise.

He did think he was Superman, and this didn't make him a terribly attractive proposition.

This is what we used to think of him. Money-grubbing? "Yes." Brash? "Arrogant." Outspoken? "All of those things." The other thing my preconceived ideas wouldn't have allowed for is that he is funny - really funny, make you laugh until you cry sort of funny.

He told me a really funny story about what led to the row with John Walker which involved them setting up a business, Athletic Attic, and which sold, for one thing, running shoes made, badly, in Puerto Rico. He claims Walker bullied people into buying these. "And then they'd return them. Some guy came back and said, 'These are two left feet.' And I'd say, 'Who sold them to you? 'Oh, John did.' "'Didn't you try them on?' 'John said it wasn't necessary'."

That's a fantastically funny story. "It is now."

Here's an even funnier one. He said: "People say I should write a book. But I've got nothing to say."

And then there are the bits of his story which could make you just cry.

"Everything he is touching is turning to gold," was a line in a 1982 profile in the Herald. He had several businesses and was promoting others (shoes, fizzy drink, pasta, rental cars, himself) and then in 1983 he won the New York Marathon and became famous in the States. He was the world's top road runner.

At home he was possibly best known for being embroiled in a savage row with the NZ Amateur Athletic Association (he still adds another of his favourite words beginning with "a" to the name) over his earnings.

Never mind the row, what glamour. What tiny shorts. Women would come up to him in the street and pinch his bum. "And they'd say: 'We're always seeing you on TV in those little shorts and we were just wondering if it is a cute little butt'." Did he enjoy that? "I thought it was kind of cool, because some of them were quite cute." Pan Am put his name on the side of one of its 747s and gave him a "self-write ticket" - for first class. He used to say to his "friend", Want to go to Zurich tonight? And off they'd go, for dinner.

Hang on a minute. His friend? He was married to Deborah then. He likes to say that he spent more time in 1974, the first year of this marriage, sharing a hotel bedroom with John Walker on their running jaunts around Europe than he did with his wife.

How do you think that marriage ended?

But we were back on that Pan Am plane, after a circuitous conversational route around the world of Rod Dixon. "Now, that was back in my naughty days, in the mid-80s." I had lost track. Was he still married then? "No. Oh. Actually ... Yes. So, in 1987." I was almost certain he'd told me earlier that he and Deborah divorced in 1989, but you try keeping up with him.

Anyway, that glamour. After he won the marathon, Ronald Reagan presented him with a T-shirt and of course they got on famously - he's "cool"; Michelle Obama, who he has been running with is "cool" - and of course he talked the President's ear off until Reagan was dragged away by his chief of staff, while being given the thumbs up by the runner from New Zealand. What a cheeky bugger he is. "You've got to be! Tee hee."

He stayed at Burt Bacharach's house during the 1984 Olympics and says that the singer tried to set him up with neighbour, Barbra Streisand. How did that go? "I thought: 'If you got a nose job, maybe.' No, no. She's a sweetheart."

Have I got space, not to mention the stamina, for the famous film director story? Perhaps the sprint version. Which is that he somehow found himself at the MTV awards, in the food line, where they were serving New Zealand lamb. Did they have any mint sauce? They had mint jelly. He said: "Mint jelly? No way." To which the chef said: "You are very particular." Yes, he said: "I'm a sheep farmer from New Zealand." He then ordered the chef to go to the kitchen and get the ingredients for mint sauce, instructed him on how to make it, which, amazingly, he did and the bloke behind him said: "I'll have what he's having."

The bloke was Quentin Tarantino and he later went over to his table and said: "How was that?" and Tarantino said: "The best!"

Some months later he was at the flicks with some LA mates and saw the director and said, "Watch this" and they said, "You're not going over to him." Of course he was. He went over and said: "I'm the lamb man. And he was like, 'How are ya?' And these guys were absolutely blown away'."

I know how they felt. But was he? He says all of this never went to his head and that he used to slap himself on those first-class Pan Am flights to make sure his life was real.

What great good fun. Until it wasn't. He had an amicable divorce from Deborah, who must be a saint, and they have two now grown-up children. Then he had a very much not amicable separation from his next partner, Kelly, and didn't see their two children, twins about to turn 16, for many years until recently.

He lost the family, and the farm in Warkworth, and he was very bitter about these things for a long time. He was drinking far too much a few years ago, but now he is "recalibrated". He has a girlfriend, but they don't live together and just as well, probably. He is happy living on his own.

He might have been - the "naughty years" aside - a bit tricky to live with. He was certainly uptight and obsessive. If he spotted a thistle on the farm, he'd have to leap up and grub it then and there. He spent all weekend mowing his lawns because they had to look like a golf course.

"And then I started to think: 'Where is this all taking me'?"

He has no money now; his Rod Dixon Kids Marathon Foundation pays him no salary, just expenses of about US$40,000 ($48,000) a year. He doesn't own a house. We were in a cafe which is also a French wine shop. He said: "Now, see that $225 bottle of wine? In my time I'd have bought that. But now ... What's wrong with a $10 bottle?" The things he thought he wanted turned out to be the wrong things. "No, it's all a mirage."

When he was the star, living the good life, nobody would have said he was a happy person, least of all, I suspect, him. Going around talking to kids and getting them running makes him happy. But why does it? "I don't know. I think I've come full circle."

Which might, in a funny old sort of way, be an even better reward than the gold medal he so hankered after and never got, or the millions that got away. I thought his might be a sad story. But, happily, in the end, it's not.

- NZ Herald

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