Bickering Billionaires Can't Sink America's Cup

(By Domnic Favre -- Associated Press)
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By Angus Phillips
Sunday, January 6, 2008

The America's Cup in many ways is like the U.S. economy, so big, established and powerful that no matter who finds a way to gain control, it survives. Right now, both are being put to the test.

I'm no economist so I'll let someone else do the math on the declining dollar, raging inflation, screwy balance of trade and all that other inconvenient stuff. But I do know a bit about the America's Cup, having covered it for more than a quarter-century, and even I am baffled and bewildered.

It's been a full six months since Swiss Alinghi beat Emirates Team New Zealand, 5-2, in the Mediterranean off Valencia, Spain, in the 32nd Cup defense, yet nobody knows what's next. The oldest trophy in international sport is mired in court papers and personal vitriol, with dueling billionaires footing the bill and spewing the bile.

Billionaire No. 1, Cupholder Ernesto Bertarelli of Switzerland, proposed to hold the next regatta in Valencia in 2009, but he broke the rules by selecting a challenger that failed to meet basic requirements of the game. Bertarelli hoped to strong-arm his way to total control of the event by dominating a hand-picked, lap-dog ally created specifically for the job.

Billionaire No. 2, Larry Ellison of San Francisco, spotting the error, took Bertarelli to court, where a judge tossed out the phony challenge from the hastily assembled Club Nautico Espanol de Vela last fall and put Ellison's well-established Golden Gate Yacht Club in its place as official challenger of record.

The billionaires were left staring at each other across a yawning divide of mistrust. Bertarelli reckons he won the Cup fair and square and it's his event to run as he likes; Ellison is demanding his rights as the challenger, which are considerable under the 19th Century Deed of Gift under which the event operates. Nobody is giving an inch.

To poison the stew further, Ellison hired Bertarelli's former skipper, three-time Cup champion Russell Coutts, to run his sailing operation. Coutts and Bertarelli parted ways after the 2003 Cup in Auckland, harboring powerful grudges against each other that continue to smolder. Coutts is a master pot-stirrer and he's been hard at work behind the scenes looking for ways to agitate and confound his old boss.

Not since 1988, when the fractious New Zealander Michael Fay issued his rogue Cup challenge against San Diego's Dennis Conner, has the Cup seen such a kerfluffle. The court-ordered "Coma off Point Loma" that year pitted Fay's huge monohull against Conner's far swifter catamaran in a one-sided non-event Conner easily won. Afterwards, everyone associated with the Cup thought, "Never again."

Twenty years later, it's deja vu.

Coutts and Ellison, the self-made, preposterously rich founder of Oracle software, have pressed over the last three months to proceed with a traditional Cup regatta in Valencia in 2009, as originally proposed by Bertarelli. But they demanded concessions from the Swiss heir to the Serono pharmaceutical fortune, who wanted his boat to participate in challenger trials, a no-no by Cup tradition, and wanted to pick umpires and protest panels for the event and control financial matters.

Bertarelli isn't budging, so the two sides are left with nothing in common except the ancient Deed of Gift, which requires the holder of the Cup to accept a challenge from any established yacht club from a foreign nation and meet that challenger on the water within 10 months. The Deed loosely describes permissible vessels for the event, capping their length at 90 feet.

Given the failure to compromise, Ellison's team claims it has no choice but to force Alinghi into a head-to-head match on the appointed date in the fastest 90-foot sailboats either side can conjure, which in the current age means big catamarans.

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