Toby Manhire 's Opinion

Toby Manhire is a Wellington-bred, Auckland-based journalist.

Toby Manhire: Stabbed to the heart, but extraordinary theatre

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Dean Barker with his team at the cup presentation, after losing in final Race of the America's Cup. Photo / Getty Images
Dean Barker with his team at the cup presentation, after losing in final Race of the America's Cup. Photo / Getty Images

It was meant to be sudden-death yesterday, but it felt more like slow and painful. The grim reaper had been stalking our America's Cup campaign for at least a week.

The first stage of grief is denial, and that got a good bit of exercise over the last seven days. "It's all about the start," said the television commentators roughly a million times, over pictures of one boat travelling discernibly quicker than the other.

Yesterday morning, denial was stirred up with the second stage of grief: anger. We were chokers, they were cheats. Wah! For some reason, the popular news website Stuff decided to plaster its front page with a picture of celebrating Oracle sailors and the words "CHOKE ON THIS NZ".

What's more, opponents were not playing fair. "Good sports be damned - they cheated. It was like racing a plane against a yacht," went one journalist on Twitter. Another: "Don't want to be a sore loser, but it seems science and not sailing won the day!" Of course, when our boat was faster, and took a huge lead, it was all a triumph of innovation and endeavour and technological prowess, hurray.

When their boat was faster, it could only be wickedness.

The story wasn't meant to have such a violent twist in the middle. A week and a half ago, our marine cyborgs looked invincible. On our behalf, they were vanquishing an unholy trinity of Larry Ellison, Russell Coutts and Jimmy Spithill - embodiments of three deplorable qualities: conspicuous wealth, betrayal, and Australian-ness.

But when Dean Barker's boat so dramatically raised its skirt two Sundays ago, having being confronted by a startlingly improved Oracle Team USA performance, the contest was transformed. A yacht's hydraulics for a moment became as nationally significant as Richie McCaw's foot.

With every day that passed, elaborate discussions about how and where to stage the 2017 defence (see, for example, the shameful piece in this slot last week) began to look like a wild act of hubris. New Zealanders started breakfasting on their fingernails.

By Saturday morning, when Emirates Team New Zealand looked on the verge of a slow-motion low-wind victory, only to be beaten by time, the elastic in the national psyche was already fraying. Any lingering optimism was extinguished by Martin Tasker, and his very British soundtrack of defeatism.

Thousands of New Zealanders had been converted within a fortnight from indifference or antipathy to becoming physically ill with starboard entry anxiety. The wind was to blame, the tide was to blame. The rules, the officials. Get Steven Joyce to stay on land. Get Grant Dalton back on the water. Any moment it seemed Wayne Barnes might be spotted in the referees' boat, scheming with Suzie the Waitress.

Somehow we had offended the gods. It was a bit like Tantalus, the original tantalised wretch who pissed off the heavens so profoundly he was condemned to eternal starvation in Hades. When Tantalus reached to the bountiful fruit tree above, the branches were blown out of reach by the wind. Every time he tried to scoop water from below, the tide receded. Probably it was an ebb tide. Go ask an oracle.

With national reserves of cool-headedness directed exclusively to Barker, the rest of us took leave of our senses. The prize for the most deranged hubristic tweet of the Cup went to Wellington mayoral candidate Karunanidhi Muthu. His advice: 'This #AmericasCup race and our wait is like tantric sex building up up up and up and hold it NZ, orgasm is just round there!'

Meanwhile an emotional Radio Sport host raged that the New Zealand media had become hyperbolic, hysterical, before adding, with a tragicomic lack of self-awareness, that we should remember what happened in Hitler's Germany.

So to the next stages of grief: bargaining - which in this case will take the form of a tricky conversation about future rules and design specs and how much state cash to stump up - and then depression. There will be a bit of that, but already the response seems much more level-headed than the reaction to the 2007 Rugby World Cup capitulation in Cardiff. We'll be okay. We're hardly unique in the world in getting histrionic about sport.

The last stage of grief is acceptance: that it was a phenomenal, extraordinary competition. That Team New Zealand did brilliant things. That New Zealand can swell with pride in having as its voice the dignified and gracious Dean Barker. That Fortune, in all its mischief, remains as essential a character in sport as money. That defeat is not really death. That it was a kind of privilege to witness across 20 days such extraordinary theatre, possibly the greatest comeback in sport.

After the dust and tears settle, it's hard to see how this can be seen as anything but a massive boon for competitive sailing and for the Cup. It's unthinkable that New Zealand won't have a go again. A nation of overnight experts in yacht racing can cheerfully retire our expertise for another four years. And this morning, for the first time in a fortnight, the news bulletins will give us New Zealand's weather forecast before California's.

- NZ Herald

Toby Manhire

Toby Manhire is a Wellington-bred, Auckland-based journalist.

Toby Manhire is a Wellington bred, Auckland based journalist. He writes a weekly column for the NZ Herald, the NZ Listener's Internaut column, blogs for listener.co.nz, and contributes to the Guardian. From 2000 to 2010 he worked at the Guardian in London, and edited the 2012 book The Arab Spring: Rebellion, Revolution and a New World Order.

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