Yachting: Heads to roll over cheats scandal

By Paul Lewis

Oracle's AC45s were illegally modified. Photo / Guilain Grenier
Oracle's AC45s were illegally modified. Photo / Guilain Grenier

There is growing speculation that as many as six Oracle Team USA members may be expelled from the America's Cup this week.

And in spite of a sailing team dominated by New Zealanders, it is understood that Australians - the other significant nationality in the Oracle team - may make up the majority of those involved when the jury announces its findings, probably on Tuesday (NZT).

On top of that, the jury may decide to hit OTUSA with a further penalty as a team; what is not known is the severity of that penalty.

Initial estimates of those who may be punished by the America's Cup international jury following allegations of cheating were that two sailors may be suspended along with a member or members of the Oracle team shore crew.

But now strong talk in America's Cup circles suggests that up to six team members may go, including up to four sailors. That's the latest intelligence following the jury's hearing under Rule 69 - designed to investigate whether team members were guilty of gross misconduct for illegal weights and modifications found on OTUSA AC45 yachts.

That hearing has finished and, while OTUSA have two teams of sailors here, speculation is also high that at least one of those affected may be from their front-line team.

If any bans occur, Oracle will have to replace the expelled sailors from within their own ranks. They can ask sailors from other teams to fill in but only with the approval of the teams remaining in the regatta - in other words, Emirates Team New Zealand.

It is understood the sailors at risk may be mostly Australians but, numerically, there is a strong chance of a New Zealander being involved. Oracle has 24 in the sailing team - eight Kiwis, seven Australians, two Dutchmen, two Italians, one Canadian, one Englishman, one Frenchman and two Americans.

Oracle's sailing crew are world-class professionals. Aside from chief executive Sir Russell Coutts, skippers Jimmy Spithill and Sir Ben Ainslie are in the vanguard of top international sailors. Australia's Tom Slingsby is seen as one of the biggest talents and was one of that country's yachting heroes at last year's Olympics.

If any sailors are banned it could end their professional careers. That will be especially so if the jury - provided they have found guilt - refer the matter to the international sailing body ISAF.

It has the power to ban sailors, skippers and owners not just from the regatta but from the sport. The precedent most quoted is the Admiral's Cup of 1987 when Austrian yacht I-Punkt was found to have illegal water ballast. Two of the crew blew the whistle and, for their pains, were banned for a year. Other crew were banned for three years, the owners for 10.

Coutts has maintained that whoever made illegal alterations to the Oracle AC45 yachts at the centre of the cheating allegations did so without the knowledge of team management or skippers.

But the jury are also looking into an avenue of inquiry where the team can be punished for failing to prevent the cheating - if that is proven. That is the hearing based on Article 60 of the America's Cup protocol; determining whether OTUSA have brought the Cup into disrepute.

That hearing began yesterday and, while the jury are keen to wrap matters up ahead of the America's Cup match which begins next Sunday (NZT), their decisions on both hearings are most likely to be out on Tuesday.

The jury have been digging hard into the cheating allegations and looking at ramifications for the event. America's Cup Event Authority CEO Stephen Barclay, another New Zealander, submitted a report on the likely effect on the Cup if the cheating was proven.

The hearings are behind closed doors under a confidentiality order covering all those involved - but the Article 60 hearing is where a penalty could be visited on the Oracle team as a whole. That could range from a censure through a fine to docking of points or even, at the extreme end of the scale, expulsion of the team from the regatta. Many observers believe the jury will take a dim view of any cheating even if there is no evidence linking team management or skippers to what went on.

That could lead to the docking of points - meaning OTUSA would start the Cup match against Emirates Team NZ in a negative position. If docked two races, for example, they would start the match at -2 and would have to win 11 races to win the Cup in the first to nine final. Team NZ would have to win nine.

However, if the team are already hit hard by the banning of the team members from the Rule 69 hearing, the jury may consider that punishment enough - though how they and sailing fans would feel about that if Oracle go on to win the Cup is not known.

- Herald on Sunday

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