New Zealand's Top Olympic Towns: Whanganui

By Jared Smith

As part of our build-up to Rio 2016, the Herald and its sister papers, in association with ANZ, have been counting down New Zealand's top Olympic towns. Today, we reveal the winner - and it's Whanganui that fills the gold medal position on the chart. Find out how the list was compiled below.

It's a wet and chilly Sunday morning at Whanganui's Gonville Domain as a junior hockey team practise their passing around the artificial turf.

Even their coaches shiver and question if the effort is worth it.

But as he watches, the nine-year veteran Black Sticks keeper Les Wilson is grateful they are putting in that effort - just as he has done since his international retirement in 1984.

The 64-year-old has been passing on the enthusiasm fostered within him as a schoolboy rugby player who first took up the hockey pads to fill in for his mate's team. It was the first step to a famous 1976 Montreal gold medal.

As reserve keeper for that supremely fit and motivated side, which won New Zealand's only field hockey medal, Wilson did not receive gold in Montreal, as was the custom of the time.

However, he, coach Ross Gillespie and manager Tony Palmer were commissioned replicas by a Nelson craftsman when they returned home.

That appropriate recognition makes Wilson one of the seven Whanganui-born men to win eight Olympic medals, making it New Zealand's top Olympic town.

Most of Whanganui's finest, be they All Blacks or Olympians, usually break through to the top level after they have left the town - Wilson's fellow Whanganui team-mate in Montreal, Alan McIntyre, had already become a stalwart of the Wellington scene by the time Wilson joined the club grade in 1969.

"He was always in the other team, you might say, with representative fixtures. He refers to us as 'the boys from the provinces'."

In 1975, Wilson joined McIntyre in a New Zealand team full of veterans desperate to do themselves justice at the Games, following the disappointing ninth placing in Munich in 1972.

India, Pakistan, the Netherlands and Australia, among others, seemed a step above in terms of class, but in every piece of correspondence Wilson received from Palmer and Gillespie a central theme was hammered home - we can win, we can get the gold.

"They just knew they had it in them to do something."

Fitting their training instructions around his four weekly club and representative practices, Wilson threw himself into a schedule that included shuttle runs with 12-minute non-stop bursts and 30 metre sprints.

"One lot [of instructions] I got I didn't read properly and I was probably doing a week's work in one night, wondering why, 'hello, I'm starting to hit a brick wall here'.

"We had one pole over the other side of the domain. And we had one bulb, and I was training under that.

"I'd be in my gear and I'd have guys hitting balls at me, under that one light.

"[It's history] how well-prepared the team was, and it did make a difference."

That conditioning was crucial for a sweltering July in Montreal where, with one win and two draws from pool play, New Zealand had to hold off Spain 1-0 in a replay to make the semifinals against the unbeaten Netherlands two days later.

On a stunning Wednesday, New Zealand and the Australians, who were facing Pakistan, were both able to upset their more fancied opposition 2-1.

"They were just running on pure adrenaline," Wilson recalled.

"The doctor come in and said, 'here, take this, it's nothing illegal but it will help you sleep'. I don't know how much sleep I got, building up to the semifinals, and another day to the final.

"Australia had had the upsets in the tournament, I think they'd beaten India 6-1, which was never heard of.

"The Aussies didn't hold any fear for our guys, they'd played them heaps."

New Zealand striker Ramesh Patel (No15) sees his shot knocked over the bar by Australian goalie Robert Proctor in the gold medal hockey match at the 1976 Montreal Olympics. Photo / AAP
New Zealand striker Ramesh Patel (No15) sees his shot knocked over the bar by Australian goalie Robert Proctor in the gold medal hockey match at the 1976 Montreal Olympics. Photo / AAP

Coming from another telecast, New Zealand television viewers joined the match six minutes in, by which time Ramesh Patel had already missed a golden penalty stroke opportunity.

"I honestly believed that had he got that, they would have thumped the hell out of us. They would have just picked their game up and gone with it," Wilson explains.

"I don't think I've watched the game right through since, but the stats show we had more shots than they did in the first half."

Captain Tony Ineson fired home a perfectly set-up ball from John Christensen and Barry Maister with 28 minutes left - a long time to hold out the Australians - with Wilson living every moment of it.

Captain Tony Ineson fired home a perfectly set-up ball from John Christensen and Barry Maister with 28 minutes left during the 1976 Montreal Olympics. Photo / AAP
Captain Tony Ineson fired home a perfectly set-up ball from John Christensen and Barry Maister with 28 minutes left during the 1976 Montreal Olympics. Photo / AAP

"Thirty degree heat on the sideline and I felt like I needed a blanket around me, I had the chills.

"It didn't help with 12 minutes to go and Trevor Manning got smashed in the knee.

"Your heart rate - it's already doubled and then it feels like it's doubling again."

Despite a wrecked kneecap, Manning spared Wilson coming on cold under that kind of pressure and gutted out the final minutes.

To this day, Wilson cannot recall watching the clock for that final, frenetic 60 seconds.

"I think I must have had my head in my hands. The final elation, as the whistle went, was just amazing."

Despite the euphoria, back at the Games village the NZ management asked the boys to keep the noise down - there was the small matter of John Walker running for his own gold medal the following day.

"There was still a party wanting to go on, on the flight out of there towards Los Angeles.

"That was all right, but once we got to LA, after that everyone was just ... hit the brick wall and slept."

Ineson, the cast-legged Manning and the rest of the team were received like heroes at Auckland airport. That delayed Wilson's return to Whanganui.

"I changed my flight so I could go a bit earlier and then I was busy with the team and didn't hear my flight called," Wilson smiles.

"So my bag arrived back in Whanganui before I did. People were out at the airport twice to meet myself."

The amateur hockey administrators of the day were unprepared for their team's stunning success.

New Zealand Black Sticks players rejoice at the end of their hockey match against Australia, winning the gold medal at the 1976 Montreal Olympics. Photo / AAP
New Zealand Black Sticks players rejoice at the end of their hockey match against Australia, winning the gold medal at the 1976 Montreal Olympics. Photo / AAP

It would be years before an artificial turf was introduced in Wellington and, already in debt from hosting an international tournament in 1975, there wasn't the money to pay $10,000-20,000 per player to attend the 1978 World Cup in Argentina.

A worker for the railways, whose baby son was born only seven months before Montreal, Wilson ended up teaching welding and doing bar work for the extra income.

"It was certainly hard to get back into club and rep hockey after a trip like that.

"It cost us to have sufficient funds for the family. Getting hockey going still took a number of years."

But looking back on those Games and other features he has read for this journey through New Zealand's Olympic towns, Wilson feels the humble backgrounds are part of the charm - including practice under a sole night light at Gonville Domain.

"[There have been] similar stories from lots of other sporting codes, as we can see with the interviews that have been done to date for this particular series.

"These guys didn't have too much, did they? Just the will to go out and participate at the highest level, and get results, that's what it's all about.

"When you get the results, you certainly keep smiling for some time."

TOP TOWN'S WINNING SPORTING CULTURE

When talking to sporting identities about what drives Whanganui's Olympic success, two factors come up constantly: facilities and culture.

"I think Whanganui's always had a sort of sport ethos," says Union Boat Club captain and Rowing New Zealand member Bob Evans.

Whanganui’s Ian Wright, right, was part of the medal-winning coxed four crew at the 1988 Seoul Olympics. He’s pictured with, from left, Chris White, George Keys and Greg Johnstone. Photo / Paul Estcourt
Whanganui’s Ian Wright, right, was part of the medal-winning coxed four crew at the 1988 Seoul Olympics. He’s pictured with, from left, Chris White, George Keys and Greg Johnstone. Photo / Paul Estcourt

"I guess it goes back to the previous century, but even the century before that. And because of that culture, within the area we've got some great facilities. We've got things like [multisport venue] Cooks Gardens, we've got the velodrome and the river to train on for rowing.

"It's easy to participate in sport here."

Historian and former Wanganui Chronicle sports reporter John Phillips highlights the coaching talent produced in the city, including two of New Zealand's most successful Olympic coaches, Dick Tonks and Ron Cheatley.

Schools also play a role, says Phillips, pointing out that hockey gold medallist Alan McIntyre was still at Wanganui High School when selected for the national team.

Former Olympian and current Whanganui councillor Philippa Baker-Hogan says she's not surprised by Whanganui position at the top of the chart.

Ms Baker-Hogan was the first New Zealand woman to win gold at the World Rowing Championships, in Vienna in 1991. She won gold at two more world championships and competed at the Barcelona and Atlanta Olympics in 1992 and 1996.

"We've been known as sport city - we are a great breeding ground."

Having top facilities in a concentrated area encourages participation and excellence in sport, she says.

"Personally, it's what bought me to Whanganui, and you can't underestimate coaches in that equation."

Whanganui needs to maintain and even grow its sporting reputation, she says. Plenty of current elite athletes with Whanganui ties may want to move back and the city must do everything to attract them.

"I guess the challenge is trying to hold that position. It's something Whanganui should trumpet."

- Zaryd Wilson

HOW WE DID IT

We analysed information about every summer Games medallist to come up with the 10 towns that have made the biggest contribution to Olympic glory.

The final position is the result of combining two rankings: the gold rank is based on the number of gold medals won by people born in each town and city, divided by current population; the Olympic rank is based on the number of medal-winning Olympians born in each town and city, divided by population. We averaged the rankings to get the final position.

Our top town, Whanganui, has a population of 43,500, according to 2015 figures from Statistics NZ. It's the birthplace of seven medal-winning Olympians, who have won seven medals, including three golds. Its gold rank is three and its Olympic rank one, giving an average of two.

The method isn't scientific and we expect it to prompt debate. Some athletes may identify with the towns they were brought up in rather than where they were born. But our ranking gives a strong indication of the places that have given us greatest cause to celebrate Olympic success since Harry Kerr won New Zealand's first medal - a bronze in the 3500m walk at the 1908 Games in London.

THE REST OF THE TOP 10

10. Whangarei
9. Christchurch
8. Rotorua
7. Ashburton
6. Nelson
5. Gisborne
4. Taumarunui
3. Timaru
2. Hastings

- NZ Herald

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