Damn Yankees, er Damn Swiss!
I was eight when the 1983 America’s Cup happened. It was the first one I really remember. I was drawn to it after a passion for yacht racing had been set ablaze 18 months earlier by visiting the Whitbread yachts in Portsmouth and meeting a nice man with a moustache who asked 6-year old me – hilariously – if I wanted a beer from the crate he was putting on board. He turned out to come from New Zealand and went on to win the America’s Cup twice.
That race, Peter Blake and Connie Van Rietschoten dueled around the world. One a ‘gentleman racer’, the other – finally – an early professional in the sport. But they dueled around the world like sportsmen, helping each other out in any number of ways in stopovers, and relaying radio messages for each other in the Southern Ocean amid other favours. Fiercely competitive – to the extent that Van Rietschoten hid the fact that he had a heart attack mid-Southern Ocean from other competitors and thus anyone ashore because he thought it would encourage Blake to put the hammer down – it was also held in an entirely sporting manner.
And so onto 1983, and another batch of exotic-looking boats sailed by dramatic characters. Flicking through the pictures of a yachting magazine I noticed a British entry and asked my father if we would win.
“I don’t think so,” my Father replied. “We’re good but we’re not the best. The Australians are the best, certainly. But then again, the Americans will cheat.”
Of course, the whole of British yachting knew back then that the Americans always “cheated”. By this, generally, it was meant that the Americans always won. But just occasionally, the manner of the victory gave us an attempt at finding an excuse for this: victory on the water was not always the only game at which the US team excelled. “It’s not in the spirit of the game,” complained one batsman to the villainous-but-victorious England cricket captain Douglas Jardine. “No,” Jardine replied. “It’s in the rules.”
Sure enough, the Americans and head villain Dennis Connor did nothing but “cheat” for the next three cup cycles. First trying to get the Ozzies disqualified in ‘83, then trying to get the Kiwis disqualified in ‘86, then adding some kind of NASA-invented plastic film to their 12 metre in Fremantle after which they didn’t lose a race. This was a crime for which they should almost certainly have been disqualified, British yachting declared with no small dose of hypocrisy. And then, of course, 1988 and all that. Just not on, chap.
The mustachioed Kiwi eventually won the cup and Connor got too old and fat for anyone much to worry about. American teams in the Cup didn’t do well enough for anyone to need excuses any more and, anyway, Paul Cayard was far too nice a man for the myth to continue despite Bill Koch’s general insanity.
But here we are today and the cultural divide is on display again. The Swiss, quietly “cheating” away and hoping that, when people notice, they will be able to get away with it. The Americans, boldly “cheating”, for the good of all, as they would have it.
We accept it today as part of the sport, but I can’t help but get nostalgic about a time before I found that out, and watched pictures of a Dutchman and a Kiwi dueling across oceans, with the spirit of the game in their hearts, as well as the rules. The important thing is that now, with any luck, the “cheating” for this time will be behind us and with all the court cases won and lost, we move on to the sailing, which, after all, is the one thing it really matters to win. – King Monkey.