Phil Gifford: A short history of America’s Cup back-stabbing


Genuine unpleasantness and rage peek out very occasionally in sport.

Boxers oddly enough, away from pre-fight hype, are usually pleasant guys, respectful of opponents. But when they break ranks, the results can be startling.

You want viciousness? Mike Tyson in 1986 creepily says he wanted to hit an opponent, Jesse Ferguson “in the nose one more time so that maybe the bone could have gone up into his brain.”

Hatred? Muhammad Ali not only jeered that Joe Frazier was “so ugly he should donate his face to the US Bureau of Wildlife”but also made the deeply wounding claim that Frazier was an Uncle Tom. By the time an ill, trembling, Ali carefully lifted the torch to light the flame at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, Frazier was so bitter he told a journalist, “It would have been a good thing if he would have lit it and fallen in. If I had the chance, I would have pushed him in.”

But for sheer volume, when it comes to verbal sniping, nothing beats the America’s Cup. Back-stabbing, wild claims, and more ill-feeling than an American Presidential debate – these aren’t a sidebar in the Cup’s history, they’re often the main course.

In 1986 I was almost certainly the least-qualified person in the America’s Cup press pool in Fremantle. New Zealand was challenging for the first time and the nation was going mad. Despite my only nautical experience being bored rigid when a well-meaning yachtie friend took me out for a day on the Waitematā, over-enthusiastic radio management insisted I fly off to Western Australia for three weeks to report on the Cup.

I have no vivid memories of the actual racing, but there was a press conference for the ages when American Dennis Conner, who would successfully defend the Cup, was asked what he thought about the fact our boat, Kiwi Magic, was made of fiberglass.

Conner, whose mush mouthed speech always gave the impression of someone speaking late in a long lubricated evening, let fly. “There have been 78 Twelve metres built (for the America’s Cup), all made of aluminum. So, if you want to build a glass boat, why would you do it unless you wanted to cheat?”

That was nonsense, but we quickly showed we could actually play sneaky games, when Sir Michael Fay tried to sandbag Conner with what, under formal Cup rules, was brilliantly officially dubbed “a hostile challenge”, using a massive 130ft boat in San Diego in 1988.

Conner, of course, trumped us with a catamaran, which allowed him, after a victory so easy it was dubbed “The Coma off Point Loma”, to spit out the perfect putdown, “We sailed the cat, somebody else sailed the dog.”

The bitterness wasn’t over, and on stage microphones picked up Conner snarling at the Kiwi designer Bruce Farr, “Hey big boy. You’re full of shit. Get lost. You’re a loser. Get off the stage.”

Mind you, even if we don’t have a mouthy American stirring it, the America’s Cup can still get us scrapping amongst ourselves.

Late in 2002, we should have still been basking in the warm glow from Team New Zealand winning the Cup fair and square in 1995 and defending it in 2000.

Instead, late in 2002, we saw a unique, ugly passage in New Zealand sport when we basically turned on our own, with a vicious backlash against the heroes of 1995, sailors Russell Coutts and Brad Butterworth, who had signed up to run a challenging campaign against us for a Swiss multi-millionaire.

The enmity took a formal turn with what was called the Blackheart campaign, with support from the Beehive, in the form of Winston Peters, to broadcasting, with Murray Deaker.

Stuart Alexander, in England’s Independent newspaper, had the best summation I’ve ever read: “Blackheart is the sort of beer-fuelled, barstool bravado that is usually remembered only with embarrassment the following morning. In this case, the boys organised a lunch, collected some money, put up some jeering posters, with Coutts singled out as their prime target, and quite knowingly pursued a policy of stirring up hatred.”

The cheering thing is that the public backlash from Kiwis, after scary incidents like Butterworth’s wife finding Blackheart stickers plastered on her car at their home, was such that the whole campaign, after raising $80,000 at that first lunch (the cash mostly used for those posters), was formally scuttled just four months later, in January 2003.

Unusually for conflicts around the America’s Cup, we saw common sense prevail then, so who knows? Perhaps the current scrap about what courses to use next year may be settled before there’s too much more blood in the water.

For all the drama around the America’s Cup the most dangerous, deeply personal conflict in sport must surely have been that between Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna, which reached its metal tearing, tyre shredding zenith on the first corner of the first lap of the 1990 Japanese Formula One Grand Prix.

They’d gone into the race, the second to last of the season, with Senna leading Prost in the world championship by just nine points. Senna, in a McLaren, and Prost, in a Ferrari, were traveling at 260km/h by the time they reached the first corner of the Suzoka track.

As Senna had feared, Prost got the better start, and was leading into that first turn, a fast right hander. Prost clearly had the line, but Senna didn’t brake. His left front wheel rammed into the right rear of Prost’s Ferrari. For a crazy moment it wasn’t Formula One, but a multi-million dollar demolition derby. Pieces of metal flew in the air. Both cars, out of control, catapulted across the track onto a dirt safety zone, disappeared in a cloud of dust, and ended the race for both. (Senna eventually won the championship.)

Senna would admit a year later that he had deliberately smashed into Prost. There had been an argument with officials over who should have pole position on the grid, he said, and “I was so frustrated I promised myself that if, after the start, I lose the first place I would go for it in the first corner.”

And Prost’s feelings? Pretty clear. “I wanted to punch him in the face. But I was so disgusted, I couldn’t do it. He revolts me.”

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