America's Cup given kiss of life

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The Independent Online
On the basis that street cleaning offered livelier entertainment for spectators, it was once suggested that the America's Cup yacht races should start about a mile above Niagara Falls.

This still strikes me as an idea worthy of consideration. However, three things served to alter perception of an event that hitherto had commanded substantially less reader interest than the mating habits of seagulls.

In 1983, the oldest sporting trophy in the world held by the United States since 1851 and bolted down in the New York Yacht Club on West 44th Street in Manhattan, was wrenched from their possession by Australia. Fascination with reports of industrial espionage further raised the competition's profile. Then there was the losing skipper, Dennis Connor, who established another first four years later when he regained the America's Cup in Fremantle. As a result of those and subsequent adventures, some of them litigious, he is famous internationally.

By any standards, and his own are pretty impressive, Connor is a hard case. On a recent brief visit to San Diego where the present series of races is taking place, I discovered that His Elusiveness is doggedly maintaining a low profile. Curiously, according to some of his rivals, Connor has sometimes delegated command of Stars and Stripes, one of three syndicated defenders representing the San Diego Yacht Club. The New Zealand crews especially have found this puzzling.

As my colleague Stuart Alexander reports elsewhere on these pages, the syndicate head of America3, Bill Koch, who recently reneged on the notion of an all women's team, wants Connor thrown out for what he insists is an infringement of repair procedure. Complaints of that nature are in keeping with the fact that the America's Cup is frequently deficient in sportsmanship.

Presumably, on account of the cost entailed in setting up elaborate security measures, the surviving boats will be raised for inspection at an unveiling ceremony. While this meets with widespread approval it is pointed out that a trawl through the rules provides opportunities for manipulation and offers trained minders the prospect of lucrative employment.

Another issue is the escalating cost of building sleek and comfortless craft and maintaining them on the water especially when, as was the case with the French syndicate, Yacht Club De Ste, it involves an injection of public money. Right and left wing French governments respectively agreed to tax concessions amounting to £25m based on investment in overseas territories. Thus the abysmal failure of both French boats has raised a chorus of dissent that has the syndicate head, Franois Giraudet, and skipper, Marc Pajot, accused of misappropriating public funds.

No such blame is attached to the Spanish syndicate whose challenge, part sponsored by the country's tourist board, also petered out quickly. "They had a healthy attitude," said a veteran America's Cup observer, Bill Center of the San Diego Union-Tribune. "They came to sell Spain and enjoyed themselves."

The notion of millionaires getting their feet wet at play is not entirely without substance but massive sponsorship is now essential. For example, Team New Zealand skippered by one of the great yachtsmen, Peter Blake, who is mounting a considerable challenge, are funded by New Zealand Apples, Steinlager, TVNZ and Toyota New Zealand. Their spokesman, Alan Sefton, a Welshman who turned out 18 times for his adopted country at football, said, "The America's Cup is growing more and more expensive. And it's no longer a millionaire's playground. We have an advantage because sailing is so popular in New Zealand. To win would be considered a tremendous triumph."

As for Connor, at 52 he may have lost the edge that made him the most feared competitor in America's Cup history. Not, though, the urge to go on winning. "There isn't anyone better at getting a syndicate together and raising money," somebody said. "Perhaps that is where Dennis sees his future. On the other hand he could lose this one and come back again. You never know with him because he's such a competitive bastard."