Dirty tricks and cheats

Dirty tricks and cheats
By Ross Coulthart

Anyone who was around in 1983 remembers the national rejoicing the day Australia learned we had wrestled the America's Cup from the New York Yacht Club after 132 years, ending the longest winning streak in sporting history.

It's one of those extraordinary sporting moments – like Cathy Freeman's win at the Sydney Olympics or the Socceroos making the World Cup. Australians went nuts, even the Prime Minister of the day declaring an unofficial national holiday.

But why was it so important?

Was it just because we had beaten the Americans in a yacht race? After all, the America's Cup is and always will be the sport of rich plutocrats. It's out of the reach of most Australians. As Alan Bond told us in the interviews for this program, the starting price now to mount even a half-credible challenge is $200 million - way out of his price range these days!

I am actually writing this blog on a bench right next to Australia II, in the public galleries of the WA Maritime Museum, just a couple of days before broadcast, as our crew gets pictures of the yacht. It's the best possible way to gauge the extraordinary public interest in the Australian victory even now, 26 years on.

For today, as well as the amazing installation, featuring a full-sailed Australia II with its distinctive winged keel looming over the public gallery, Alan Bond has kindly loaned us his exact replica of the solid silver America's Cup which he had made by London jewellers Garrards soon after the win. They made this replica from the original mould made for the real mug over a century and a half ago. It's great fun to watch members of the public gazing at this huge lump of silver, sitting right next to the legendary keel that so fired the public imagination back then. You can hear mums and dads whispering to their children, "That's it, that's the Cup!" A few lucky tourists have come up and asked us if they can be photographed standing beside it – we've been joking we should start charging. But it's great to see the thrill it gives people.

I suspect the America's Cup victory meant something a lot more than a simple sporting victory for Australians. As Alan Bond tells me in this week's story, it was “Australia's Space Race”. The technological achievement behind Australia II's design taught Australians that it is indeed possible for this country to design and build world-beating yachts, and anything else for that matter. It helped us over our inferiority complex as a small nation. The idea that a plucky under-dog like Australia could go up against the might and power of the US military-industrial establishment, and win, perhaps played a small but significant role in inspiring a generation of Australians to take on the World in the arts, sport, science, design and technology.

As John Longley told us, “In the early 80s I think we still most likely had a bit of a chip on our shoulder as a nation, and here we are, taking the Americans on not only on in a sporting event but we had beaten them with sport and with technology. They had people on the moon you know, shuttles and that type of thing, and so I think it made it gave everyone, every Australian, the opportunity to stand a bit straighter puff their chest out a bit and say we can do that we can take on anybody and anything and I think that's - I feel very vain saying that by the way because it seems ridiculous a bunch of blokes could have done that and I don't feel comfortable saying it but I that's what people have told me.”

Which is why the claims of Holland based naval architect Dr Peter Van Oossanen, suggesting that Australia basically cheated to win the cup by using Dutch designers, matter so much to so many. To accuse Australia II of cheating is to denigrate something that was a defining moment for many in their sense of national identity.

I have to be honest and say I really don't think it matters a jot in the long run who is right or wrong in this very silly argument, not least because Peter Van Oossanen is as dinky-di as most Australians. He is now an Australian citizen and he had the right to become one at the time of the challenge. He actually grew up in Mosman from 1951, went to high school there, then studied at university in Australia before returning to his native Holland to begin his career as a boat designer. So the bloke was breathing eucalyptus fumes and had Sydney sand between his toes for his formative years. And he speaks `strine with a distinctive Aussie twang.

The other reason I don't think it matters is because – to be blunt – the Yanks have been playing fast and loose with the interpretation of the America's Cup Deed of Gift – the race rules – for years before the Aussie win, and since. Then there is the rule at the centre of the blue between the Dutch yacht designer Van Oossanen and the Australians; the rule which requires that any yacht competing in the Cup has to be designed by a citizen or resident. Well, the Americans had the cash and the political pull to fly in designers from overseas and give them residency or even citizenship for the purpose of designing a winning boat. Why shouldn't other countries benefit from the international know-how in yachting design? Part of what makes the Cup special is that it's a design competition as much as it is a race but being a tad more flexible on that rule by acknowledging the realities of globalised design information and technology would be a real step forward.

When we interviewed the New York Yacht Club's gentlemanly Henry Anderson, his frankness was disarming. He admitted that the Deed of Gift imposes a huge conflict of interest on the Club holding the cup (and by inference, for much of the last 150 years, he's referring to his own New York Yacht Club when he says that).

What Henry Anderson believes is necessary is some kind of international and independent adjudicatory yachting body that can interpret the Deed of Gift rules without the inevitable bias any defending club would employ to give themselves a tactical advantage.

Without that change the America's Cup will increasingly be fought less on the water and more often in the courts.

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