Great contest, but who cares?

The latest in the America’s Cup contests was decided yesterday in the waters off San Francisco, 30 years to the day that Australia II won the deciding race against Dennis Connor to finally wrest the cup from the New York Yacht Club. That was a momentous occasion, and though this years comp was dramatic the contest has lost a lot of its fizz.

If it were not for the manner that the cup was won – or lost – this year, then the final result would have figured somewhere on the inside of the sports pages, a curiosity rather than news of any great interest. It’s been pretty much the same for the last 15 years. This year is different only because the Kiwi’s looked to have it comprehensively won leading 8-1 in a 17 race series – only to somehow lose the next 9 races for the US to clinch the cup. It’s been called one of the biggest chokes in sporting history. The US certainly got out of jail, and understandably jubilant. Across the Tasman in contrast, a nation mourns.

It was an exciting result, but there’s no getting away from the fact that as a sporting contest the America’s Cup is a shadow of what it once was. In years gone by the America’s Cup was one of the most romantic sporting events in the world. For decades it was contested in the waters off affluent Rhode Island. There was money, glamour, history, as well as the fact so many had come to win the cup off the American’s, only to fail every time. There was a sense of the doomed quest, a mountain never to be conquered. Year after year the story was the same, until 1983.

Every Australian alive at the time remembers the day Australia II crossed the line first to win 4-3 against Liberty, after being down 3-1. It was the era of the winged keel, Alan Bond, surly Dennis Connor matched against a suave John Bertrand, a nation celebrating and a PM at the time splashed by champagne famously claiming that any boss who sacked a worker was a bum. It was an exhilarating time. The quest was finally successful. The mountain had been climbed. The NYYC unbolted the Cup and sent it down under.

That was the beginning of the end really. The romance was gone. It was like when Clark Kent finally got together with Lois Lane. The story was the unresolved frisson. Together – the cup won – it became just another story.

The America’s Cup has been competed for in the 30 years ever since, but it’s been a long while since Australia – the most dogged of America’s rivals – has bothered to enter. I think there is a sense here that it’s not the sport that it was back in the day, for many reasons. What counted was taking it the first time. The spell broke that day, and since then it’s just another sport.

There are other factors that tell against the America’s Cup these days. The cup holding nation could always dictate the type of competing boat. After the sloops in the early days of the cup, it became famous as a race between 12 metre yachts. These are beautiful, elegant, slick, an aesthetic delight. They’re not as quick as the express cats, but they were all class. It’s the difference between a big titted beach bunny who catches your eye, and a sophisticated woman who seduces your brain. Tradition was lost when 12 metre yachts were usurped, and some of the aura of the contest went with it.

As before, the cup is still a contest between nations, but in name only. American’s may today celebrate a famous win this time around, but the fact is only one crew-member on Oracle was American. Four were Australian, including the key members – coach, captain, and strategist. There were even two Kiwi’s on board, and the man running the campaign was the Kiwi who became famous winning it for New Zealand.

This is nothing new. For years now crews have been a mercenary, polyglot lot. No blame to them, they’re professionals – but it dilutes the meaning of the contest. It’s not really one nation against another; it’s one crew against another, and predominantly Australians and New Zealanders.

Once upon a time it was a contest between countries, and when we won it we could feel justly proud. It had an epic feel to it because it was such a romantic escapade, and because so many had their hopes riding upon the result. These days it feels corporate – the winning American boat is even named after Larry Ellison’s company, Oracle.

The winning contestants have good reason to be proud and happy today. They competed hard and won, against the odds. For the rest of us I think this is but a shadow of what it once was. This result is a diversion, but tomorrow we forget.


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