FYI: Why has the defender of the America's Cup not been in action so far, and why is the cup named that if it's not in America?

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 03 June, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 03 June, 2007, 12:00am

At 156 years old, the America's Cup is the oldest sporting trophy in the world. This year is the 32nd time the cup has been contested and the first time it has been held in Europe, with Valencia, Spain, having the honour.

The cup is named after the yacht America, which beat the Royal Yacht Squadron in a race round Britain's Isle of Wight in 1851, sparking an enduring cross-Atlantic rivalry. The Americans enjoyed the longest winning streak in sport - 132 years - before finally losing to Australia in 1983. America reclaimed the trophy four years later and held onto it until 1995, when New Zealand took it back to the southern hemisphere.

In 2003, Swiss team Alinghi, bankrolled by biotech billionaire Ernesto Bertarelli, beat the Kiwis on their home waters in spectacular fashion to bring the cup to Europe. Land-locked Switzerland used an Olympic-style bidding system to select Valencia as its home port for this year's event. The fact only four countries have ever won the cup illustrates the elitism that rules in the top ranks of international yachting.

Since 1958, the America's Cup has been held every three or four years, although it was held consecutively in 1987 and 1988. This year's contest will begin on June 23, but challengers have been competing in the Louis Vuitton Cup for the right to sail against the holders of the Auld Mug. This year's Louis Vuitton Cup saw China, Germany and South Africa enter the competition for the first time. Italy, meanwhile, entered three teams to face off against the America's Cup rookies as well as Sweden, Spain, France, the US and New Zealand.

The fleet of 11 contenders has already been narrowed down to two. Emirates Team New Zealand is racing a best of nine series against Italian team Luna Rossa - which is backed by Prada - to decide who will compete against Switerland.

America's Cup hopefuls have been testing their equipment and each other in the Louis Vuitton Cup

since early May, while the Swiss have remained mostly onshore, enjoying their role as official hosts and learning about their rivals. Because they are the defenders, they do not need to race in the series that selects their challenger. However, the Swiss competed in three series of races before the Louis Vuitton Cup began, and their performance showed that hired guns and a fat budget for technology have created a formidable team, even if it is one that does not have a tradition of sailing.

A healthy rivalry exists between the owners of the teams. At a press conference to open the Louis Vuitton Cup in April, Larry Ellison, the owner of US team BMW Oracle, and Bertarelli were testily jockeying for position around the gleaming prize as they posed for photograph-ers. Ellison's team were later beaten by the Italians and joined the long list of America's Cup hopefuls whose chances of lifting the grand old trophy have sunk without trace.