Dana Johannsen

Dana Johannsen is the NZ Herald's chief sports reporter

America's Cup: Chasing Larry Ellison

Larry Ellison has been conspicuous by his low profile at the regatta but was snapped yesterday watching the Race 12 action.
Larry Ellison has been conspicuous by his low profile at the regatta but was snapped yesterday watching the Race 12 action.

He promised the greatest international sailing festival ever seen. Staged in the most "spectacular natural amphitheatre for sailing that God created on this earth", he would transform the America's Cup from an elite gentleman's sport into a spectacle for the masses.

But so far Larry Ellison - the billionaire tech mogul and the mastermind behind this year's America's Cup format - has been a no-show at his own party.

His presence is felt everywhere you go around the America's Cup Park - from his 90m superyacht Musashi that is parked up just outside the entry to the media centre, to the documentary about Oracle's 2010 Cup triumph, The Wind Gods, directed by son David, which regularly plays on the big village screens.

Ellison is everywhere and yet he is nowhere.

Such is the paucity of his appearances it has become a bit of a game among the media in San Francisco to get a sighting of him.

I think I might have seen him, once.

It was July 9. I had arrived at the America's Cup village early and just happened across Ellison being driven in the back of a golf cart, presumably from his boat to some engagement. There was something so odd about seeing one of America's wealthiest men bobbing around in a golf cart that I began to convince myself that it wasn't him.

Another reporter swears he saw Ellison emerge on the top deck of his mega yacht, have a quick chat to the skipper before they docked out, and then head back inside. This story was relayed with great excitement before concluding "it was definitely him, I can't be certain though".

When it became clear Ellison wouldn't be making any public appearances at this regatta, the Herald made inquiries about getting an interview. It was a long shot, I know, but as I explained to Oracle Team USA's media liaison, I had to give it a crack all the same.

"You want an interview with Larry?" she replied, eyebrow raised, as she handed me the details of a contact at his corporate office. Undeterred I fired off an email, requesting an interview with Ellison, finishing, rather hopefully, "I look forward to hearing from you."

A week passed. Nothing. And so I sent a follow-up email, asking if they had time to consider my request. Nothing.

So I gave it one more try, finally getting the one-line response: "I will have to decline comment on behalf of Larry, I am sorry."

I was no doubt not the only reporter in town chasing an interview with Ellison. With the media eager to hear his thoughts on the event and his reaction to the cheating scandal that enveloped his team in the lead-up to the regatta, Ellison's biographer Julian Guthrie was wheeled out to deliver news from the Oracle camp.

Guthrie, who wrote the book The Billionaire and the Mechanic, which tells the story behind the Oracle co-founder's decision to challenge for the world's oldest sporting prize, made an effort to explain Ellison's curiously low profile at the regatta.

She described Ellison as "very, very private".

"He has a small group of trusted friends, employees and colleagues who he surrounds himself with - he's so focused on Oracle and the America's Cup that he kind of closes out other things that could be distractions ..," Guthrie told a media breakfast last week.

"His attention is on what he sees as the critical things - Oracle and, right now, winning this race. Not just winning the race but also making it a great event."

Ellison, with a reputation as an abrasive, high-handed figure even in the best of times, is not exactly a local hero. Many San Franciscans objected from the start to the city's subsidising a wealthy man's boat race, and Ellison's involvement made for an especially easy target in this left-leaning town.

He was also an easy target for a group of Kiwis who decided it would be a good idea to decorate the garage of one of his San Francisco properties with New Zealand flags. The video of the Kiwi ninjas fast went viral, apparently resonating with a lot of the locals as well as fervent Team New Zealand supporters.

It was the actions of this group that may just have given me the opportunity to finally come face to face with Ellison.

While the Herald was visiting Ellison's street in the ridiculously wealthy area of Presidio, overlooking San Francisco Bay, to take pictures of the Kiwi ninjas recreating their famous stunt, one of his humourless security guards followed us up the street.

He made a point of snapping pictures of each of us. The guard no doubt thought he would put the wind up a few Kiwis by taking the pictures, but it had the opposite effect on me.

I was triumphant. I had finally made it into the inner sanctum of Larry Ellison's operations. My mug is now on their security files.

- NZ Herald

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