Enough with the America's Cup excuses

23:45, Sep 26 2013
Dean Barker
DEFEATED: Team New Zealand skipper Dean Barker.

This America's Cup has been an extraordinary Kiwi story that, in many respects, has played in to the very idea we have about ourselves as New Zealanders.

At one level Kiwis are supremely proud of being able to claim world records, winning teams and unlikely champions because we psychologically prefer to position ourselves as an underdog going in to every race or competition.

From when you are knee-high everyone tells you to not get too big for your boots. Don't be too cocky or someone will take you down a peg or two. So we feign this idea that we aren't going in to win. We never spout out loudly that we are the best.

Whereas Jimmy Spithill was branded as the antithesis of this ideal from his first appearance.

Perhaps it was the media deliberately exploiting his wry smile, self-assured attitude and his Australian origins or maybe it is just the Spithill way but he was happy to talk about winning interview after interview - and then he won race after race.

And of course once we started to lose we began to look for the excuses.

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Many like to make derisory comments that the America's Cup is simply a rich man's sport while the fans defend that. Well it clearly is a sport that is very much about corporate millions but it is not alone in that regard.

Nearly every sport on the planet has an elite end of the spectrum and it needs to be paid for. The money comes from a revenue-generating business model, state sponsorship or corporate sponsorship.

But there is also the other end of the spectrum and, here in New Zealand at least, sailing is no different.

Where we live on the Otago Peninsula we drive past three yachting clubs and the Sea Scouts' clubrooms between home and Dunedin city.

To the best of my knowledge I don't drive past any billionaires on the same stretch of road but most weekends I see kids out on the water in their little P-class boats and there are often Sunday regattas in the bay out the front of our house.

So the actual sport of sailing is by no means the domain of the super rich. But to compete at the highest level requires enormous resources, just as professional football, baseball, cricket or basketball also require very wealthy sponsors.

It has been a little ironic then that as the final race for the 2013 America's Cup was being run all the commentators could talk about was how Team New Zealand were being defeated because someone else had more money.

To be fair, someone else is always going to have more money. We can get all patriotic and talk about shoestrings and number eight wire but it is all fantasy. The biggest visible icon on Team New Zealand's sail is the Emirates brand and the next is Nespresso.

There is, no doubt, some truth in the fact that when things start to go wrong Larry Ellison can keep paying and paying to get the best people in the world to help Team Oracle problem-solve, but you can't simply disregard the talent that was also at play.

In the sailing world Spithill is a legend himself. He was another boy wonder sailor not dissimilar to Barker, Coutts and Dickson but, more importantly, he is infamous for prestart tactics and aggressive match play.

All of Team New Zealand would have known that, so getting caught out with two penalties from Spithill should not have happened.

Since Ben Ainslie climbed aboard, Oracle never lost another race. Ainslie has won a medal for sailing at every Olympics since 1996 (including four golds), made it his business to study match racing from a tactical perspective and has sailed for Team New Zealand in the past.

Then there is Russell Coutts himself. His credentials are exemplary and his success rate in the America's Cup unequalled.

So it is bit rich to start suggesting that the only winner on the day was technology or the X-factor was Larry Ellison's bank account. Some ground-breaking addition may give an edge but it is nothing if not backed up by superb skills and experience on the water.

Thousands of Kiwis will be kicking themselves for getting too excited about the cup sitting, once again, on the nation's mantelpiece only to find themselves in that familiar place. That place we wallowed in after five consecutive Rugby World Cups where we were convinced we were the best but were robbed of our victory through some bad luck or circumstance beyond our control.

I do feel for Dean Barker and Team New Zealand as they were the sportsmen putting their heart and soul in to the competition.

I can understand them being devastated about failing to close the deal but the general public probably need to get over themselves.

The Press