Whanganui has been unveiled as New Zealand's most successful Olympic town.

With eight Oympic medals - including three golds - spread among seven competitors, the River City has the country's best record of Olympic success per head of population.

With the Rio Olympics starting on Friday, the New Zealand Herald has completed its rundown of New Zealand's top 10 Olympic towns based of number of medals per capita, and Whanganui leads the way, starting with a bronze in Paris in 1924 for Arthur Porritt, who later became governor-general.

Legendary rowing coach Dick Tonks (silver in 1972), who is with the NZ rowing squad in Rio; Trevor Coker (gold in 1972, bronze in 1976) in the rowing eights; Les Wilson and Alan McIntyre (both hockey gold in 1976); and rowers Ross Tong (bronze in 1984) and Ian Wright (bronze in 1988) complete a celebrated list of those born in Whanganui.


And we will be well represented again when the 28th Olympiad kicks off with Lucy Oliver (nee van Dalen) in the 5000 metres; rowers Kerri Gowler, Chris Harris and Rebecca Scown (born in Taranaki but a member of the Union club and already a bronze medallist from the last Games in London); rowing coaches Tonks and Calvin Ferguson; NZ head track cycling coach Dayle Cheatley; cycling sprint coach Jono Hamlin; Athletics NZ administrator Kat Austin and athlete support crew member Cath Cheatley.

When talking to Whanganui sporting identities about what drives the city's Olympic success, two words come up constantly. Facilities and culture.

The Whanganui River no doubt helped the majority of Whanganui-born rowers who won medals, but the city also boasts Cooks Gardens, a world class velodrome and countless parks and stadiums all in close proximity.

Union Boat Club captain and Rowing New Zealand member Bob Evans said sport was in the city's blood and was why Whanganui could achieve the best per capita medal haul in the country.

"I think Whanganui's always had a sort of sport ethos, if you like. 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 Cooks Gardens, we've got the velodrome and the river to train on for rowing.

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

Mr Evans said the facilities and culture fed each other.

"Facilities are here because of the culture. People fought hard to get the velodrome. People fought hard to get the [artificial track] at Cooks Gardens," he said.

And like many of the cities in the top 10 Olympic towns, Whanganui is provincial.

"You look at a town like this," Mr Evans said.

"There's quite a big hinterland. People are active and that makes it easier.
"If you're doing physical activity as part of your day, the sport stuff is easiest to achieve."

Whanganui historian and former Chronicle sports reporter John Phillips put Whanganui's success down to its wealth of facilities but also its coaching talent.

"I think Whanganui is lucky that we've got the facilities to start with, for all sports. And lucky that we've got good officials and coaches.

He said the hosting of the New Zealand Masters Games highlighted Whanganui's strength in both areas.

But he said it was a credit to Whanganui that it had produced two of New Zealand's most successful Olympic coaches in Dick Tonks and Ron Cheatley.

The schools also play a role in sporting success and Mr Phillips points out hockey medallist Alan McIntyre was still at Wanganui High School when selected for the national hockey team.

Meanwhile, former Olympian and current Whanganui district councillor Philippa Baker-Hogan said she expected Whanganui to be at the top of the per capita medal haul.

"I'm delighted, but not surprised," she said. "We've been known as sport city - we are a great breeding ground."

Having sporting facilities all in a concentrated area fostered and encouraged participation and excellence in sport.

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

In Vienna in 1991, Ms Baker-Hogan became the first New Zealand woman to win a gold medal at the World Rowing Championships and won gold at two more world championships as well as competing in the Barcelona and Atlanta Olympics in 1992 and 1996.

"Also, you don't have the distractions of the bigger cities and usually your training facilities are on your back doorstep. It makes a big difference," she said.

Whanganui needed to be mindful of maintaining and growing what it had cultivated. There were plenty of current elite athletes with Whanganui ties who might want to come back to live, and the city needed to do everything to attract them back, she added.

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

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 place, 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 eight 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 might prompt debate. Some athletes identify with 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.

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