Sailing: Tempers fray as America's Cup turns up heat

Vibrant Valencia has turned into violent Valencia and today it will become vicious Valencia, as the serious business of knockout trials for the 11 challengers for the America's Cup begins.

Gangs of street robbers have invaded the city and are making life a misery for foreigners as security is concentrated on the bases around the newly developed Port America's Cup. The shine on what should be a glittering event is being tarnished.

Inside those bases, finishing touches have been made to the yachts which today begin two concentrated series of one-on-one matches for the Louis Vuitton Cup. The battle to make the semi-final cut in three weeks' time will be unrelenting. Only the winner has the right to line up against the Swiss defender, Alinghi.

There are squabbles and wind-ups around the dock. A Maori flag has been flying over the Alinghi compound opposite Team New Zea-land, stirring memories of how they were treated by extremists in 2003.

The America's Cup has always been a cut-throat game and this 32nd defence seems unlikely to break that mould. There are, however, major changes.

What claims, at 156 years and counting, to be sport's oldest trophy is being presented in a new, more populist and commercial guise. The format, which includes a lot of pre-cup racing, was dreamed up by the defender and agreed to by Larry Ellison's BMW Oracle, as challenger of record.

A tightrope has to be walked in preserving precious equipment, especially sails, and people. TNZ's Grant Dalton says: "Unless you manage the team carefully you will be fried." He still denies that the British Olympic gold medallist Ben Ainslie will skipper any races in place of Dean Barker.

No fewer than 187 crew will dock out each day but only one woman, the American Katie Pettibone, with France's Areva team, is likely to be among them. The strain, both physical and mental, of continuous racing - 20 events over the next 22 days - is made worse by success, including the major hurdle of having to peak twice in less than four weeks for the team which eventually races Alinghi.

That should be either Team New Zealand or BMW Oracle, who are both blooding the newest of their two boats, but either could be sideswiped by unforeseen problems. At least TNZ should not suffer the humiliation of a near-sinking and a dismasting, as happened when their 2003 defence fell apart in front of a stunned Auckland faithful. Prime Minister Helen Clark joins them for an "18th man" ride today in their race against the fast-improving Mascalzone Latino of Italy.

The shape of things to come was indicated by what is likely to be the backmarker, the debutant Team China. "We are determined to be in the America's Cup for the long term," said the syndicate head, Chaoyong Wang .

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