John Weekes

John Weekes is a reporter for the Herald on Sunday.

Olympics: Small-town hopes swell

Peter Burling and Blair Tuke. Photo / Getty Images
Peter Burling and Blair Tuke. Photo / Getty Images

They're happening in London, one of the biggest cities in the world. Most of our contingent are from our biggest city, Auckland. But when the Olympic Games kick off in less than two weeks, those in some of our tiniest towns will have a personal reason to be watching.

New Zealand Olympic Committee statistics for the more than 180 Olympians heading to London have 156 listing New Zealand home addresses. Of those, 71 live in Auckland. The second-largest cluster is in the Waikato, with Cambridge home to 27 competitors, courtesy of our large rowing team.

But though many Olympians born in the countryside now live in big cities, others still call small towns home.

Kerikeri, Kawerau, Feilding, Waipukurau, Wyndham in Southland, and Golden Bay's Parapara will all be represented in London. And for places that often get a bad rap, or are just ignored, the Olympics are a chance to make positive news.

Far North Mayor Wayne Brown said athletes such as Kerikeri sailor Blair Tuke helped overturn negative stereotypes about Northland. "The rest of New Zealand hears about things that don't go too well in Northland."

Brown said Tuke and Team NZ sailor Andrew Murdoch honed their skills at Kerikeri Cruising Club and Kerikeri High School. "It's testimony to how a small rural school can set a very high standard and can do so well."

Meanwhile, Waipukurau was thought of as an isolated, uneventful small town. But the Hawke's Bay settlement, population 4000, will have an Olympic presence when cyclist Westley Gough takes to the velodrome in London on August 2.

Gough said he made the most of what Waipukurau offered, which sometimes wasn't much. "When I was younger I would make the most of the Tuesday night club races, which were always the highlight of the week. Those races were my first taste of bike racing. When I first started track cycling [we] would to travel once a week in the evenings to the nearest velodrome, which is in Feilding, and meet up with Jesse [fellow Kiwi rider Jesse Sergent] and his coach. That's where I was introduced to track training and did some of my first proper training sessions."

Feilding featured in the news around the Scott Guy murder trial but the town took heart this week from its home-grown sportsmen, including Sergent and All Black Aaron Smith.

Manawatu district mayor Margaret Kouvelis said Feilding would stage a civic reception for Sergent if he won a medal. Kouvelis said Feilding's stars never forgot their origins. "The appreciation of where they come from, they never lose sight of. They also embody what I call the modesty that seems to reside in this district. There's a lot of encouragement to excel. If it's worth doing, it's worth doing well."

Palmerston North, with six Olympians, punches above its weight - as do Whangarei and Tauranga, each with five Olympians.

Dunedin, home to just two 2012 Olympians, was at the other end of the spectrum. Of the smaller centres, Kawerau has BMX rider Sarah Walker to cheer on, while other cycling stars Jack Bauer (Parapara/Takaka) and Natalie Wiegersma (Wyndham, Southland) are also small-town residents.

- Herald on Sunday

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