Auckland may have lost one big yachting event – the round-the-world Ocean Race – but legal manoeuvrings continue to see if Emirates Team New Zealand can be forced to hold the 37th America's Cup in Auckland.
The Ocean Race has cut the city and China as stopovers on the 2022-2023 race, instead opting for a massive 12,750 nautical mile journey between Cape Town and Brazil, including the Southern Ocean – a departure from the previous 12 times the round-the-world race has stopped in New Zealand (11 in Auckland).
It's a shock for the local yachting fraternity; organisers speak of Auckland as the race's "spiritual home" but Covid-19 has been blamed. Auckland was confirmed almost two years ago and the loss of the stopover will be a blow to many – not least Mayo & Calder, the company which managed several past stops here and who parted company with Team NZ before the last Cup regatta in Auckland.
However, legal machinations which seem designed to block the selection of one potential venue for the next Cup defence continue.
While Ireland and Spain are still alive as potential Cup venues, Saudi Arabia is also an option, leading Queens Counsel and former Emirates Team NZ director Jim Farmer to threaten legal action if they are appointed. Farmer has been associated with Mark Dunphy's campaign to keep the Cup regatta in Auckland.
Farmer has accused Team NZ of being a patsy for Saudi Arabia's sports-washing – and has written about the "appalling human rights record" there, with its public executions, disregard for women's rights and the alleged involvement in the grisly murder of award-winning Washington Post journalist, Jamal Khashoggi.
Another lawyer, Hamish Ross, has echoed Farmer's indication of using the same legal leverage applied to stop the 1985 All Blacks tour of then-apartheid-ruled South Africa – essentially breaching the then Rugby Union's constitutional responsibility to foster rugby.
Published in the Scuttlebutt yachting magazine recently, Ross wrote: "It is not much of a leap for the New Zealand courts to make from apartheid South Africa of 1985 to Saudi Arabia or similar regimes of today where human rights are accorded little value, if the courts are called upon to review an America's Cup venue selection".
The public threat of legal action has a consequence alongside putting Team NZ on a warning. It alerts potential Cup venues to the possibility they may be dragged into such a dispute. No overseas venues means Auckland is last man standing – though postponement is always an option.
Regardless of the legal strength or weakness of such a case, it's a bit of a minefield when you get into sport versus human rights – it's never easy to make a consistent case apply in all instances.
For example, Emirates airlines has been the naming sponsor of Team NZ since 2004 – during Farmer's tenure as a director of the team from 2004-2013. The United Arab Emirates has also earned criticism for human rights failings, among them allegations of abductions and torture, detention and imprisonment of activists, violating women's rights and gay rights and a lack of democratic elections.
So why is Saudi Arabia and Jeddah not okay, while the UAE and Dubai are perfectly okay? We are only really talking about degrees of awfulness, like the 2019 death of 42-year-old Emirati woman Alia Abdel Nour, convicted of terrorism with - according to human rights groups - the only evidence being her donations to Syrian refugee funds. She died of breast cancer for which, according to the groups, she had been refused treatment, dying after three years of mistreatment during which she was often shackled to her bed.
Lydia Ko is playing in Saudi Arabia at the moment – and no one has threatened legal action against her or another New Zealand golfer, Ryan Fox, who played in the rich Saudi International tournament in 2019 and last year. New Zealand's Emma Gilmour will soon be competing in the off-road Extreme E rally there for that epic Kiwi brand, McLaren.
If the All Whites qualify for next year's World Cup, will anyone in New Zealand take legal action against them going to Qatar? It is another Middle Eastern state facing allegations of human rights violations, including abuse of foreign workers tantamount to slavery.
While we're at it, why did our Olympic team go to China in 2008? Why is our Winter Olympic team going there next year? Why is our cricket team in Dubai for the T20 World Cup? Where does it stop?
Team NZ seem little concerned – no venue decision has yet been made. Unlike 1985, when there was enormous public pressure on the Rugby Union, there is so far little domestic or international force being exerted on Team NZ. After all, what's the difference between the America's Cup in Jeddah and the first F1 Grand Prix in Jeddah, due to be held there next month?
In 1985, the tour was a big social and political issue, with large public protests; the Gleneagles heads of government agreement called for no sporting contact with South Africa, diplomatic relations were severed with South Africa and Parliament passed a resolution calling on the All Blacks not to go.
The court of public opinion has not yet been courted but, if Saudi Arabia is appointed, be prepared for that to happen too.