PM a 'Johnny come lately' when it came to America's Cup fever

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Last updated 14:52 30/09/2013

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OPINION: What a remarkable turnaround that was.

Caught in a bad position, a few last-minute adjustments, then suddenly the boat was heading in the right direction, with the coup de grace ensuring a place in history. Bugger.

John Key's seemingly irreverent message on Twitter immediately spread across the world, reinforcing New Zealand's frank, if sometimes crass, way of expressing itself.

Back home the less cynical among the social media set knew that the leader of the nation felt just the way they did.

For a moment it was almost as if Key's previously dismissive comments on the America's Cup had never happened.

Just a few weeks ago, with Team New Zealand in command of the America's Cup finals, Key suggested that only victory would answer the question of whether Labour's decision to pour millions into the campaign was money well spent.

"Come and ask me if they win," he said, having reminded us unapologetically that his Government tried to get out of contributing to Team New Zealand when it came to power, as it wrestled with the global financial crisis.

A few months earlier amid a fresh dispute over rules, Key lamented that "a sport that spends as much time practising as it does in the courtroom is a bit tiresome for everyone".

With Team New Zealand battling to protect what it believed to be a technological advantage over its rivals, the support expressed by its reluctant patron must have been galling.

How things can change.

As victory seemed inevitable and yacht clubs began to burst with fans, knighthoods were on the cards for the key crew.

By the end of the regatta Key found the loss "gut wrenching" and was talking up the extraordinary publicity New Zealand won through the event.

If the cost was high and divisive, he reasoned, then so were many decisions, such as hosting the Rugby World Cup or campaigning for a seat on the Security Council.

With a historic trip to spend the weekend with the Queen drowned out by the hype surrounding what he had described as "billionaires fighting over different legal rulings", Key was being reinvented as an enthusiastic fan of the America's Cup. If the Government was caught off guard by the popularity of the event, it should not have been. Back in 1995 on a victorious Sunday, church services were interrupted at every mark rounding as Team New Zealand romped to victory.

It was every bit the rich man's sport then as it is now, only without the technology to make it more accessible, but that did not stop the cup drawing tens of thousands to a series of parades up and down the country.

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So what if Key missed a photo opportunity this time around? Because, for all of the interest it attracted from fans at home, the real opportunity was overseas business.

In San Francisco, a New Zealand Trade and Enterprise cocktail party attracted business leaders estimated to be worth at least US$2 billion (NZ$2.4b) combined.

The sailing was an unprecedented platform for our marine and technology industries, just a stone's throw from Silicon Valley and Key should have been there, at least for a visit, whether he agreed with the spending or not.

Instead he was more focused on a picture with the Queen, who frankly, looked as if she would rather be watching the yachting.

The lack of support this time around (Helen Clark was aboard during one of the key races during the Valencia campaign) led to public outbursts. In an email still circulating on the internet, Ian Taylor, head of Animation Research, which has provided graphics for America's Cup since 1992, said he felt "ashamed" of the way New Zealand treated innovators.

He blamed Key's refusal to "step up" with strong public support, for the $36 million provided by the Government hanging over the entire campaign, rather than being celebrated as a showpiece for our technology.

Finally, Key says there are now no regrets about the spending, as he appears to clear the ground for putting more money into Team New Zealand.

While ministers are now celebrating the remarkable publicity Oracle's comeback attracted in America, using it as a basis for more funding, they forget that the America's Cup is usually one-sided. This one was almost the same.

Whether it was a good idea to invest money into Team New Zealand was determined years ago when Grant Dalton was stitching together a campaign, raising more than twice the amount provided by the state. Since then, the team has reminded the world New Zealand is a dominant force in sailing and boatmaking, giving profile to a high value industry on the wrong side of the world.

That much was perfectly clear before the finals started.

If Key did not see the value in that a month ago, then he should come out and say so.

- The Press

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