25 Jun 2017

America's Cup: Here's to 'just another dirty regatta'

5:51 pm on 25 June 2017

If Team New Zealand boss Grant Dalton is to be believed, this America's Cup is more than a yacht race, it's the showdown at the Not-OK Corral.

Team New Zealand celebrate their victory as they now head into the finals. Louis Vuitton America's Cup Challenger Playoffs Finals, Day 3 , Day 3.

Emirates Team New Zealand celebrates their victory in the Challenger series. Photo: ACEA 2017 / Gilles Martin-Raget

It has been a little forgotten in all the excitement beaming in at an ungodly hour from Bermuda, but Dalton told the New York Times before the regatta began that part of the incentive for winning was to restore some of those good old-fashioned New York Yacht Club values to the competition.

If that doesn't happen, he warned, "it's doomed to be just another dirty little regatta."

This struck me as odd at the time because I'd begun to like the America's Cup precisely because it was now, quite plainly, just a dirty little regatta.

Finally, after decades of disingenuous appeals to history - the Auld Mug and all that - the event was nakedly about money, ego, technology and spectacle, and quite enjoyable for it.

It was only ever thinly disguised as anything more, of course, given the Cup's long history of legal challenges, ludicrous rule changes and buccaneering business barons buying their way to glory. The advent of foiling catamarans, wing sails and Silicon Valley billions had seemingly laid to rest whatever vestigial notions of blue-blazered tradition might have endured.

It's now 30 years since Sir Michael Fay bankrolled the KZ7 challenge in Fremantle, the first time most non-sailing New Zealanders became aware of the America's Cup.

Sir Michael Fay, two-time runner-up for New Zealand 1987 and 1992, speaks during the 20th-anniversary gathering of Louis Vuitton Cup winners in Auckland, 21 January 2003.

Sir Michael Fay, two-time runner-up for New Zealand 1987 and 1992, speaks during the 20th-anniversary gathering of Louis Vuitton Cup winners in Auckland, 21 January 2003. Photo: AFP

The 1987 campaign was ultimately unsuccessful (not that you'd have known it when Auckland welcomed the team home with a ticker-tape parade) but it set the tone for successive tilts by what became known as Team New Zealand.

Sir Michael was an architect and beneficiary of the massive economic changes begun in the 1980s, and the America's Cup is forever associated, at least in some minds, with a brand of corporate nationalism and patriotic propaganda that sugared the pill of asset sales, benefit cuts and ruthless deregulation that were the hallmarks of the new economic ideology.

Someone famously coined the phrase "blue water jingoism" to describe it, but for better or worse it was a highly successful marketing strategy.

From holding hands and singing "Sailing Away" to pulling on lucky red socks (made in China), we've shown willingness as a people to buy into the ambitions of rich men or corporate sponsors indulging in an obscure pastime that has often been difficult - not to say tedious - to even watch as a spectator.

Whatever else the America's Cup is now, it is certainly more enjoyable to follow for non-initiates such as myself. It is patently a rich man's sport - or rich person's if you must, though it seems to be mainly men who do it - and can be appreciated for the extraordinary, if slightly pointless, skill and inventiveness required to excel in it. Formula 1, without the noise and monotony.

Most of all, aside from the expected sporting media hype, we've been spared the overt associations with national identity and cultural pride.

No songs, no socks, no flag-wrapped advertising campaigns, and no infuriating debates about spending public money on hosting a private party.

Despite the commercial arguments for it being sailed overseas permanently, if the Cup returns to Auckland it would also be nice to think we could appreciate it for what it has become, rather than imbue it with qualities it long ago lost - if indeed it ever had them.

It may now be "just another dirty little regatta", but perhaps that's not such a bad thing. Let's keep it that way.

*Finlay Macdonald was editor of the New Zealand Listener magazine from 1998 to 2003, commissioning editor at Penguin New Zealand from 2003 to 2005, and a weekly columnist for the Sunday Star-Times from 2003 to 2011

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