The America's Cup Has Fallen Into the Wrong Hands

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By Angus Phillips
Sunday, August 2, 2009

Team New Zealand won the America's Cup from Dennis Conner in San Diego in 1995. After a victory tour, the Kiwis put the Auld Mug, the oldest trophy in modern sport, on display at the Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron in Auckland.

In March 1997, a protester of Maori heritage slipped into the trophy room with a sledgehammer hidden on his person and bashed the silver ewer to a pretzeled hulk when no one was looking. The yachting world was aghast.

The mug was swiftly resurrected by craftsmen in England, where it had been built in 1848. It was reinstated at the RNZYS and put back on display (in a guarded, bulletproof case) until 2003, when a boyish Swiss billionaire named Ernesto Bertarelli won and took it off to Europe.

My question is, where is that sledgehammer-wielding man when we need him? This time he'd have to bring more powerful weaponry. This calls for a bomb. A big one.

The glorious event called the America's Cup has been so grievously damaged and betrayed by Bertarelli and his billionaire nemesis, San Francisco software guru Larry Ellison, that the trophy needs not to be battered but blown to smithereens so it will never, ever again sully the landscape of serious international sport.

Strong words? Well, look at the facts. Since Bertarelli's Alinghi team successfully defended the Cup in 2007 in Valencia, Spain, the event has been mired in one legal wrangle after another. So tangled is the web that the next Cup very likely will be in some blistering Middle East port next year between two immense, engine-assisted multihulls bearing little resemblance to anything that's ever raced before.

How did it come to this? It wasn't easy. First Bertarelli appointed an all-but-nonexistent Spanish yacht club to be his puppet challenger of record for the 33rd defense. Then he unilaterally dictated terms that gave him power to change the rules, kick out any challenger he didn't like, and hire and fire race officials.

Ellison, who had already failed spectacularly in two attempts to win the Cup in 2000 and 2003, took exception to the terms and sued in New York state courts, which have overseen the Cup since the late 1980s, when rules were written and filed there as a trust. The event has been in and out of court for the last 18 months in a bewildering array of suits and countersuits.

Nothing gets settled out of court because there's nothing but bad blood between Bertarelli and Ellison, who come to their exalted status from different sides of the track.

The Swiss is a trust-fund baby whose estimated $8 billion bank account arrived in a gift from daddy, who ran the global pharmaceutical dynasty Serono and bequeathed it to lil Ernie. Bertarelli is married to a former Miss United Kingdom, and they have three precious little ones who fly around the world with their photogenic parents on papa's private jet.

Ellison was born in the Bronx to a single teenage mother who turned him over to an aunt and uncle in a two-bedroom apartment in Chicago when he was 9 months old. He tried college but dropped out to start Oracle Corp. on a shoestring. Today he's worth an estimated $22 billion, builds ever-larger motor yachts so he can brag that he has the biggest one in the world and is the butt of a widely told joke: What's the difference between God and Larry Ellison? God doesn't think he's Larry Ellison.

Ellison has about three times Bertarelli's wealth but Bertarelli has something Ellison can't get his hands on: the America's Cup. The Swiss hired the best skipper in the world to win it, luring three-time Cup winner Russell Coutts away from his native New Zealand with big bucks. When Coutts grew disaffected with Bertarelli, he hired out to Ellison.

With the best hired guns at their sides (Bertarelli's skipper is four-time Cup winner Brad Butterworth), the two billionaires have been blustering and bloviating ever since the last Cup ended. Meantime, the event and everyone associated with it is in a tailspin. After a widely hailed 32nd defense in Valencia with 11 challengers in matched, 75-foot Cup-class yachts, which Bertarelli won over Team New Zealand, activity on boat- and team-building around the world has ground to a halt.

The America's Cup has regressed from a glittering, multinational event with entries from Asia, Europe, Africa and North America to the old pattern of two unappealing rich guys flaunting their fortunes while the world struggles through hard times. Not since Mike Vanderbilt held off three challenges by Sir Thomas Lipton and Sir T.O.M. Sopwith in the hardscrabble 1930s has the Cup fallen so far out of touch with the real world.

Multihulls racing for the America's Cup in the Red Sea, with snowmobile motors to power the winches? How low can this mess go before some deranged fellow with a bomb in his pocket sneaks into the trophy room at the Societe Nautique in Geneva and puts the poor Auld Mug out of its misery for good?

Not long, one hopes.


© 2009 The Washington Post Company

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