King of America's Cup finds his crown slipping

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 19 April, 1995, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 19 April, 1995, 12:00am

THE roguish charm that has made Dennis Conner a living legend in the America's Cup is wearing thin these days.

Yachting's hero has taken on the mantle of villain, and all this is because he plays the game by the only rule he knows - win at all costs.

Three weeks ago, Conner's hopes - and his boat Stars & Stripes - all but sank off Point Loma in the semi-finals of the Defender series.

It took a compromise to keep alive his chances of progressing into the finals, and from here on, possibly winning the America's Cup for a fifth time.

The veteran of 21 years in sailing's grandest race, Conner was said to have struck an eleventh-hour deal with the other two defence syndicates - PACT 95 and Bill Koch's America3 - whereby all three boats entered the Defender finals.

It was the first time in history that three boats had raced at this stage of the event.

And Conner, who was seen to be the instigator of these cunning moves, has been the target of criticism from the American public, the Joes and Janes who once revered every word he uttered.

The American Sunday newspapers still carry letters censuring Conner's scruples. Jeff Markell said: 'Dennis Conner's sterling sportsmanship rides again. The women beat him by a convincing six minutes. He couldn't beat them, but by changing the rules at the last minute, he could cheat them.' Jim Drake added: 'Sports is not about compromise. The pivotal players - Dennis Conner and Bill Koch - are evidently unaware of this fact.

'The integral reason of sport is that only one party should win on merit. They should be ashamed of their willingness to change the rules so late in the day.' Mr America's Cup brushes aside these criticisms.

Conner said: 'They should have given those people involved in the compromise a Nobel Peace Prize. Our obligation is to ourselves, to the San Diego Yacht Club and to do our very best.' Of course the very best, in Conner's mind, is to see that the Auld Mug does not leave the shores of America.

'We did what was the best for the defence, for ourselves and for the Cup,' he said.

'At this point of time, the challengers look very strong on paper and we have to be as best prepared as we can.

'This is the USA and we have the talent and the ingenuity to do well.' Yes, the ingenuity and, apparently, the outright gall to make the most of his second chance.

The deal gave PACT 95 and the mostly women team of America3 a head start on Stars & Stripes.

Going into the finals, where each boat has to sail the others four times, PACT 95 took a bonus of two points and America3 got one point. And now at the halfway stage, Conner is tied with the others.

OneAustralia skipper Rod Davis put everything into perspective.

'If you got someone like Dennis on the ropes, you knock him out. You don't help him back to his corner,' Davis said.

Well Conner, the man who has done as much for sailing as John McEnroe did for tennis, was virtually carried back to his corner and given the kiss of life.

Despite Stars & Stripes' keel almost falling off (the crew re-keeled their boat before the finals began working non-stop for 36 hours), they have somehow managed to find new life and extra speed.

Talk about ingenuity.