Almost every nation finds a sporting event so captivating, that it comes to a virtual standstill during the event. For Kiwis, this happens with international Rugby events such as the Rugby World Cup, the Bledisloe Cup and the current British and Irish Lions tour of New Zealand. The Olympic Games and Commonwealth Games would also be top contenders.
There is one other sporting event that sees our nation pause and television news shows devote prime spots for. And for this we have to thank the Australians. I don’t believe I just thanked the Aussies – I must be delirious.
Way back in the 1970s Australia started challenging the United States for the world’s oldest international sporting trophy – the America’s Cup. It had been held by the New York Yacht Club since 1857, and when Australia finally won the cup in 1983, they ended the longest winning streak in sporting history.
Australia is a nation we don’t mind supporting if we are not competing against them, and as we’re both sailing mad nations and small fry compared to America, our interest in the America’s Cup grew with each challenge. When Australia finally won, us Kiwis were cheering as loudly, if not more so, than the Aussies.
With the next challenge to be close by in Australia, and our natural desire to beat the Aussies at anything, interest was high enough to raise the funding necessary to make a challenge for the cup in 1987.
NZ’s KZ 7 (Kiwi Magic) was one of 13 yachts to compete for the right to challenge Australia for the cup. Perhaps our interest in the challenge series would not have been so intense if it had not been for one factor: Dennis Conner (who had lost to the Australians four years previously and went on to win the Cup back for America) accused the Kiwi team of Cheating: “Why would you want to build a fibreglass 12-metre [yacht] unless you wanted to cheat?”
We like to think that we are special when it comes to the matter of fair play, and that it is more important than winning. So when we were accused of cheating, everyone saw red and the cup challenge become personal to almost every Kiwi. How dare someone accuse us of cheating.
The Kiwis had no experience at building aluminium hull racing yachts, which was the international standard at the time, but had years of building ferro-cement and glass reinforced plastic yachts, so it was only natural for us to use that technology in an America’s Cup challenge. The challenges to the legitimacy of what became fondly known as the Plastic Fantastic saw Conner rise to the status of “Dirty Den – the American that kiwis loved to hate”.
I guess the fact that New Zealand is a tiny country gives us a sense of “David verses Goliath” mentality especially in events such as the America’s Cup where vast sums of money are sunk into challenges and defences. The kiwis have only a fraction of the funding available to other teams, yet in the America’s Cup events following our first attempt, New Zealand has won the right to challenge for the cup five times and defended it twice. In other words New Zealand has been in seven of the last nine America’s Cup finals.
Today, New Zealand once more becomes the proud holder of the America’s Cup and during that final race, much of the country came to a standstill, and news bulletins have headlined the win and very little else. When the team arrive home next week, there’ll be ticker-tape parades and numerous official and unofficial functions in honour of their success.
Then there’ll be the hard work to prepare for a defence in Auckland in 2021. With any luck, I’ll be there to cheer on my favourite team. Go Team New Zealand!