Top Olympic Towns: The finale

As part of our build-up to the Rio Olympics, the Herald, in association with ANZ, has counted down our top Olympic towns. Today we celebrate the full top 10.

Olympic hockey gold medallist Les Wilson summed it up perfectly.

Considering the interviews with other medallists who featured in our countdown of New Zealand's 10 top Olympic towns, Wilson noted: "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."

The series, which ran throughout July and concluded yesterday, aimed to find the towns and cities that have made the biggest contributions to New Zealand's Olympic glory.

Wilson was born in Whanganui - the top town on the list.

Choosing the methodology wasn't easy. We analysed information about every summer Games medallist. The final position was the result of combining two rankings.

The gold rank was based on the number of gold medals won by people born in each town and city, divided by current population; the Olympic rank was 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.

We knew the method wasn't scientific and expected it to prompt debate - some athletes identify with the towns they were brought up in rather than where they were born. Danyon Loader was included in the Timaru roll of honour even though his he was born there by accident, with his mother falling into labour during the drive back to Dunedin.

Our criteria meant people born overseas were not part of the calculations. They included gold medallists Mahe Drysdale, Norman Read and Ted Morgan.

The final list excluded some big centres, most notably Auckland and Wellington. As you'd expect, Auckland was the birthplace of more medallists than anywhere else - 35. But its much bigger population pushed it into 15th place on the list. Wellington was unlucky 13th.

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.

Many of the people we interviewed talked of similar themes - the road to Olympic glory starting at school, budding athletes benefiting from committed coaching, investment in community facilities.

They spoke, too, of self-belief. Cyclist Sam Bewley: "The first time is always going to be the most special and it made it all the more sweeter as we were underdogs in the race. I had texted my parents the night before saying 'I'm not coming off the track without a medal' so I'm relieved I lived up to my own pressure."

They talked about the financial sacrifice needed to fulfil their dreams. Rex Sellers on his return from the 1984 Los Angeles Games with a gold medal and the start of preparations for the Seoul Olympics four years later: "When I came home there was all the big fanfare and I thought I'd like to be a professional sailor. I went and saw sports promoter Andy Haden. He said, 'listen Rex, they'll never be any money in yacht racing'. I went back to work."

And they spoke of the need to innovate. Quadruple gold medallist Ian Ferguson: "We couldn't afford a kayak, so I made one out of old corrugated iron and used tar off the road to putty up the holes. I bent it into shape ... but it sank to the bottom in the end."

Almost everyone conveyed a sense of complete commitment to their goal - how else could they have scaled the sporting heights?

Wilson, part of the only Kiwi team to win a hockey medal - gold in Montreal in 1976 - spoke of long nights training under a single bulb at Whanganui's Gonville Domain. But his efforts paid off: "When you get the results, you certainly keep smiling for some time."

Les Wilson recalls his extraordinary journey from Whanganui's Gonville Domain to the 1976 Montreal Olympics, where he won a hockey gold medal. Photo / Bevan Conley
Les Wilson recalls his extraordinary journey from Whanganui's Gonville Domain to the 1976 Montreal Olympics, where he won a hockey gold medal. Photo / Bevan Conley

In Rio, New Zealand's Olympic class of 2016 are preparing to do their utmost to reshape this list. In cities, towns, villages and isolated homes, the next generations of Olympians are already on their path to the biggest sporting event in the world.

What will our top town be in 2020?

EXPLORE OUR TOP 10

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

- NZ Herald

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