New Zealanders ask if they can afford to challenge for America's Cup again

New Zealand's America's Cup meltdown has stirred a national debate as to whether country has the money and drive to challenge again

PUBLISHED : Friday, 27 September, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 27 September, 2013, 2:31am

New Zealand Prime Minister John Key summed up the feelings of his country when their America's Cup team were beaten by Oracle Team USA in the winner-take-all showdown.

"Bugger," he tweeted from New York.

In a taciturn country where one word is more than enough to convey the gamut of emotions, it said it all. Frustration, disappointment and, ultimately, resigned acceptance.

Tens of thousands had been on tenterhooks for a week as Dean Barker's Team New Zealand established what seemed an unassailable 8-1 lead, needing just one more win to clinch international sport's oldest trophy and return it to Auckland.

Oracle, however, powered back with eight successive wins to seal the trophy in a remarkable comeback that helped make the once-troubled event among the most exciting in sailing history.

Tens of thousands gathered at yacht clubs, bars and cafes around New Zealand again to watch what seemed to many to be the last act in a slow-moving horror story as their hopes of winning the cup for a third time sputtered and died.

The final race screened at 8.15am New Zealand time, lasting around 25 minutes, at the end of which fans, whose numbers had swelled steadily through the finals series, made their way to work or school in a mood of numbed disappointment.

A national debate has already begun about New Zealand's future in the America's Cup and whether this nation of 4.5 million can find both the ambition and the resources, financial or otherwise, to challenge again.

"Not unexpected. It just seemed fairly obvious over the last week that the gains Oracle have made, they have got better and better," Graeme Mercer, a sailing instructor at Wellington's Royal Port Nicholson Yacht Club, said of the final day's racing.

"Our boat wouldn't go any faster and today just showed that despite the minor errors Team New Zealand had made in some of the previous races, it wouldn't have made any difference."

Backed by NZ$36 million (HK$231 million) in public funds, Team New Zealand's performances to establish their lead created a sense of expectation that a trophy they had last held in 2003 was within their grasp.

Despite the stunning turnaround, Mercer said Oracle had won as a result of a sensational fightback, not by Team New Zealand choking.

"Choking is an armchair-critic response from people who have no idea what they're talking about," he added. "Maybe if you're putting a golf ball and muff it ... but this is a technology sport and ... Team New Zealand could not have raced any faster."

Oracle team boss Russell Coutts, who won the America's Cup twice for New Zealand in 1995 and 2000, said in San Francisco that despite having a population of only 4.4 million, New Zealanders would fully have expected to win. "New Zealand expects a lot out of their sports people," he said. "As a nation we generally fight above our weight. As a nation we expect the All Blacks to win and expect our sailing teams to win and if they don't people say, 'Why not?' I don't think that's a bad thing."

In addition to missing out on the sport's bragging rights, New Zealand is set to miss out on an estimated NZ$500 million in additional economic activity.

Surveys showed that at the height of the regatta, as Team New Zealand edged closer to victory, a majority of New Zealanders favoured further government funding in the expectation of a major economic boost from a cup defence in Auckland.

But as defeat became more imminent, support for a further injection of taxpayer funds dwindled and the government will question if, in a time of relative austerity, further funding would be popular.

Key, who watched the final race from New York where he is attending the general assembly of the United Nations, said: "There's a lot of things you have to consider before you put taxpayers' money on the line. [Team New Zealand] I am sure will want to regroup, think about what their next steps are and we will want to sit down and have a discussion with them."

Despite the defeat, New Zealand's marine industry has seen positive spin-offs. Oracle established an 80-strong boatbuilding factory in Warkworth, north of Auckland, for the regatta, while more than 40 other local companies provided components and expertise to the four syndicates in the series.

"What happened was all very unfortunate, but the positive spin is that it's really revitalised the America's Cup," said Peter Thomas, project manager at Cookson Boats, which built Team New Zealand's two state-of-the-art 72-foot catamarans.

"Team New Zealand did such a bloody good job that I'm sure the whole world feels for them."

Agence France-Presse, Associated Press


Amazing comebacks and collapses in sports history

Buffalo Bills, 1993 NFL play-offs

The Houston Oilers seized a 35-3 lead early in the second half, but Buffalo quarterback Frank Reich sparked the most improbable comeback in NFL history with five touchdowns and the Bills won 41-38 in overtime on their way to the Super Bowl, where they lost to Dallas.

Boston Red Sox, 2004 Major League Baseball play-offs

The New York Yankees won the first three games of the best-of-seven American League Championship Series before arch-rival Boston became the first team in Major League Baseball history to win the last four games to capture a series; they went on to sweep St Louis for their first World Series crown since 1918.

England, 1981 Ashes test series against Australia

The "Headingley Miracle" when Australia declared on 401, England managed 174 in response and were 137 for 5 at tea on the fourth day. But Ian Botham struck for 149 not out and Bob Willis took eight wickets for only 43 runs to rally England to an incredible triumph by 18 runs in what would be known as "Botham's Ashes".

Europe, 2012 Ryder Cup

With the Americans ahead 10-6 entering the final day's 12 singles matches, the European side pulled off the "Miracle at Medinah" with a record fightback for a 14½-13½ triumph to keep the Cup.

France, 1999 Rugby World Cup semi-final

Led by Jonah Lomu's two tries with the French seemingly unwilling to tackle the gigantic winger, the heavily-favoured All Blacks had established a 24-10 lead early in the second half and seemed to be on course for a place in the final. But Abdelatif Benazzi inspired the rest of his forwards to tear into the All Blacks with the French scoring 33 unanswered points to win 43-31.

Liverpool, 2005 Champions League final

Trailing 3-0 at half-time to AC Milan, Liverpool scored three times in six minutes and won the title on penalties.

Agence France-Presse