America's Cup: Mills enters shark-infested waters

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The Independent Online

Britain is back on the big board of sailing, the America's Cup. Not this time round maybe, but the buzz around the Boat Show at London's ExCel was a powerful boost to the confidence in the sport, which is already high about the British sailing squad's hopes for another bagful of medals at the Beijing Olympics next year to add to five at each of the past two five-ringed circuses.

The connection is a key London 2012 figure, Sir Keith Mills, who has stuck head, neck, shoulders and a sizeable chunk of his personal fortune above the parapet, as well as his credibility, to lead an attack when he expects the Cup to be held in 2009. He was spot-on when saying that he expected to spend €30 million (£20m) a year for the next four years to match the budgets that the best of the current challengers in Valencia this summer are spending to try to topple the holders of sport's oldest trophy, the 1851 America's Cup.

He also has to be as nimble of foot as he has ever been in a business career that includes founding the Air Miles company - and money is not the only problem. Just ask Larry Ellison, the billionaire boss of the Oracle syndicate, now massively backed by BMW, who is in his second tilt after one expensive failure.

Mills, one of the men credited with bringing the Olympic Games to London (and Weymouth for the sailing) in 2012 has an easy manner but he is embarking on an obstacle course that is strewn with rocks and grief. It has been the nemesis of many - the event was described as far back as the 1930s as having the "fascination of sin". He cannot fully rev things up until he knows who has won the 32nd defence, widely expected to be the holders, Alinghi of Switzerland, in Valencia in July. Then the winner chooses the place and date of the next event.

Sir Keith knows he has home-grown sailing talent in abundance, but he will trawl the inter-national talent market, especially in picking the right design team. His track record may make fund-raising more successful, but appointing the right chief executive will be crucial. And his biggest enemy is time.

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