Team Oracle was penalised before the last San Francisco event for cheating. Under the 2017 released protocol, it now seems that the new conditions for challengers are broadly in Oracle’s favour. They are permitted to have two boats available and the challenger only one. There are restrictions on sailors and their ability to participate in other sailing events without Oracle approval. There are financial provisions creating sponsor difficulties for challengers. Pay your entry fees before the venue has been selected. Another change enhances Oracle’s control over the review committee.
There is no doubt last year’s America’s Cup event in San Francisco Bay captivated New Zealand. Each race drew more and more Kiwis to television coverage and engendered pride in team and country. Fans were paying princely sums to fly late in the piece to the US to watch the concluding races. It was David v Goliath. 4 million v 300 million and the vast wealth of Larry Ellison - estimate $44billion.
Fair play is at the core of any sporting event. Generally we call it ‘a level playing field’. So what is all this latest kerfuffle about and who is making these decisions?
At the centre of Team Oracle is CEO Russell Coutts who I will refer to as an ex-Kiwi. Coutts was born in Wellington and had a quality history of yachting performance that included selection by Sir Peter Blake as skipper for America’s Cup challenges. In 2000 he was given a Distinguished Companion award under Helen Clarke’s government for services to yachting, specifically the 2000 cup defence.
Under changed conditions in 2009, living recipients were given an option to revert back to the British System. The award was ‘exchanged’ for a knighthood by Coutts at that time.
Our country is highly regarded in world yachting for the standard of its sailors, its boat building and for fair play. When New Zealand held the cup, I do not recall any criticism of challenger conditions imposed by this country and its yachting fraternity. Sir Peter Blake stood high and, in memory, still does. There was a lot going on in 2000. The races were only part of it. Read ‘Blake, Sefton on Coutts.’
Shortly after the 2000 win, Coutts defected to a Swiss syndicate and took with him a number of key Team New Zealand personnel including design leader Schnackenberg and tactician Butterworth. At the time this caused severe angst in New Zealand and in my opinion for very good reasons. Fame and glory had been delivered in part by his yachting ability but also by contributions made by both government and private sector funding including us. Swiss sailors? It was seen as a betrayal for $$$.
There were also peculiarities about how the approach to or from Swiss, Ernesto Bertarelli, occurred and when? The Coutts story implied a disagreement with Team New Zealand directors/sponsors. One director called this a load of hogswash. In an interview, Coutts said he first met Alingi personnel on a rail platform in Switzerland while asking for directions. Plausible? I have reasons to think not.
Allow me some licence here. Imagine a Swiss businessman telephoning shortly before all this happened. He was coming to New Zealand. A request was made to set up a meeting with Coutts. He gave no detail before and no detail after of what he wished to discuss. All that is certain is that the defection occurred shortly after. We would need to shake the trees at Montreux to get the truth.
It is known that Coutts has done very well from his Team New Zealand beginnings. Having moved on from Alingi to Oracle, current salary rumoured to be over US$10m. Properties in various locations including Auckland, Whangaparoa and around Queenstown. Overseas properties unknown.
So for the last 14 years he has been based overseas. He has a New Zealand nominated honour of great value in negotiations and status. But now he appears to have taken a course of action to beat challengers, including New Zealand challengers at all costs. The 2013 challenge cost $36 million of New Zealand taxpayers money not to mention the sponsors. That’s peanuts to Ellison, of course.
So recent readings lead me to believe RC sees himself as the Godfather of sailing. Grant Dalton is certainly critical. ‘This is Coutts’ protocol – there’s no mistake about that.’ ‘none of that makes any sense at all other than some paranoid attempt at world domination.’
So is Coutts a favoured son who deserves his knighthood? By tradition bestowed for ‘chivalrous behaviour’ in service of one’s country. Faith, loyalty, courage, honour spring to mind. What say ye? And finally is it now the right time to leave Ellison, Coutts and Spithill to play alone with their toys?