America's Cup: It was Ben wot won it

By Paul Hayward

Headlined "Ainslie the modern sea dog of war", Paul Hayward's column in the Daily Telegraph was representative of the British press' reaction to Ben Ainslie — sorry, Oracle — winning the America's Cup

Ainslie will fight anyone and anything. Mostly, he fights the wind and the sea, which must be sick of him winning. Photo / Oracle
Ainslie will fight anyone and anything. Mostly, he fights the wind and the sea, which must be sick of him winning. Photo / Oracle

Not since the Mayflower has the English seafaring community made such a big claim in America. Possibly in retaliation for Uncle Sam's boast about winning the last war in Europe, Sir Ben Ainslie is portrayed as master and commander, sent across the Atlantic to bail those Yankees out.

Should we slosh our mugs and sing a shanty of how Ainslie rescued America from ignominy in the glistening waters off San Francisco? Shall we go on repeating that the Oracle catamaran of Larry Ellison, the world's fifth-richest man, was flotsam on the waves to the New Zealand challenge before Ainslie brought his tactical skill and admiral's authority to America's quest to retain the Auld Mug, which has never been won by a British team in 162 years?

The appropriation of Oracle's amazing comeback from 8-1 down to win in a final-race shoot-out is reminiscent of that famous newspaper headline: "Fog in the Channel, continent cut off."

But there is more than chauvinism at play here. The more money-drenched and technologically sophisticated modern sport becomes, the more we value the human elements of skill, courage and leadership.

Few of us can claim a precise technical understanding of how the America's Cup was turned on its head. Yet we were quick with our jokes about Kiwi choking ("the All Blacks on boats") and dumbstruck in our appreciation of the new graphics, camera angles and athleticism that were meant to appeal to "the Facebook generation, not the Flintstones generation", according to Ellison, whose salary tends to hover around US$73 million ($88 million).

The messianic power of the American tycoon is familiar to us from F Scott Fitzgerald novels and the films of Orson Welles. When the billionaire seeks a cure for boredom, it tends to cost a hundred million bucks. Ellison's Oracle team of 130 staff was F1 with daggerboards and wing sails. It propelled a barely manageable 72ft catamaran at speeds of more than 80km/h and showed sailors at the limits of their physical capacities.

This is a deeply hierarchical sport, with Ellison at the top and the "grinders" at the base, powering hydraulics and changing sails for 25-30 minutes, or dashing across the netting like mad trampolinists. In the middle come the strategists, the tacticians: the role taken by Ainslie when Oracle's defence was sinking.

If you were James Spithill, Oracle's Australian skipper who became the youngest to win an America's Cup in 2010, and made his debut at 19, you might not fancy a knighted Pom grabbing the credit for one of sport's great comebacks (a feat that is being compared to Botham's Ashes, Manchester United at the Nou Camp in 1999, Liverpool in Istanbul and the Ryder Cup at Medinah).

In the euphoria of Thursday, it was easy to forget that Oracle started two points down for adding illegal weight to their boats, and so were overcoming a penalty for dishonesty with their hunting down of the New Zealand vessel, whose crew must feel like Greg Norman, Jean van de Velde and the 2005 AC Milan Champions League side rolled into one.

The "bunch of kids" Ellison hopes to inspire were doubtless drawn to the death-race feel of the contest, the science, the gleam of the vessels and the manic efforts of the crew, as well as the explanatory plotting of the race with ocean markings and distance counters: all breakthroughs for an essentially esoteric middle-class sport.

But in the midst of this modern exhilaration we saw a familiar face of Britain's Olympic team: perhaps the least heralded of all our great athletes. Ainslie is the most successful Olympic sailor of all time.

His fourth gold, at London 2012, was a triumph of the will from a seemingly impossible position. The Dane Jonas Hogh-Christensen had held sway over Ainslie in seven of the 10 preliminary races but 'the new Nelson' still prevailed. He called those home Games "the hardest two weeks of my life", but then sailed off in search of further challenges.

How perverse it will seem now if no British America's Cup attempt forms around Ainslie. If sport in these islands is running out of tasks to tick off then ending a 162-year wait for sea-racing's most prestigious title is an enticing aim for an archipelago with a rich seafaring history.

We could ignore the personal vanity of the billionaire backer and fix our eyes instead on Ainslie's last great quest. If British triumphalism needs toning down, we might say he was the catalyst for, not the author of, America's comeback: no small compliment, given the odds stacked against them.

Ainslie will fight anyone and anything. Mostly, he fights the wind and the sea, which must be sick of him winning.

- Daily Telegraph UK

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