By JAN CORBETT
In many ways Russell Coutts and Switzerland have a lot in common. They're both lovely to look at, in a conventional, angular, thin-lipped sort of way. Yet both are excruciatingly hard to get to know.
They both enjoy a long history of excellence and respect that has given them an unfortunate, obnoxious arrogance and insensitivity to other country's feelings. Or maybe that's just Ernesto Bertarelli.
They have both fashioned themselves as repositories for large amounts of money, often appearing in the same sentence as "bank account".
They are both technically skilled, almost obsessive about the minutiae of machinery and design.
At least one of them has survived through a policy of neutrality that some may interpret as running with the hares and hunting with the hounds.
Tellingly, the name of the Swiss challenger for the America's Cup, Alinghi, doesn't mean anything.
And perhaps most notably, neither can shake off the aura of being just a tiny bit dull. Dare we say, boring?
Even if he hadn't spurned New Zealand in favour of the Swiss syndicate, it seems doubtful that as we cast around for successors to our ageing generation of national heroes - Hillary, Snell or Meads - that Coutts would have ever joined that exclusive club, even after a vacancy was prematurely created by the murder of Sir Peter Blake.
The spot is more likely to go to basketball coach Tab Baldwin who, even though he is not a New Zealander, at least seems to like us.
When an American journalist, trying to convey the national mood, described to his audience how Coutts and Co leaving Team New Zealand was received with the same grief as the break-up of the Beatles, he was seriously overstating it.
Despite his bulging trophy cabinet - three gongs, a place in the America's Cup record books for being the only defender to become the challenger; the second only non-American behind John Bertrand to win the cup; the longest run of wins in America's Cup racing; being only one of two America's Cup winners to also hold an Olympic gold medal, and becoming one of the youngest skippers ever inducted into the America's Cup hall of fame - Russell Coutts still seems like a goofy teenager from, well, Switzerland.
His detractors might even say that's too kind.
Even when he was a teenager, starting out in the unique-to-New Zealand training vessel - the P Class (no one is sure what the P stands for, but the clumsiness of the craft lends weight to the idea it means "piggy") - Coutts knew winning was about more than just sailing well.
Glen Sowry, who sailed P Class at the same time as Coutts, was with him in the backup crew at the 1992 America's Cup campaign and who now does public relations and America's Cup commentary for TVNZ, recalls how 14-year-old Coutts would engage in psychological tactics against competitors too, openly suggesting, for example, that there was something wrong with their boat.
Sowry also sailed with Coutts in a One Ton Cup campaign in San Francisco where he witnessed Coutts' obsessive attention to detail. San Francisco Bay is extraordinarily difficult to sail.
"It requires considerable research and time spent understanding the currents," says Sowry.
"For weeks I went out with him, going around the bay doing tide checks. It was really impressive to see the approach he took."
Sowry not only respects Coutts for being "the most focused and talented" of sailors, but also considers him a friend and a fun guy.
As his fans point out, Coutts has been able to hold the loyalty of his sailing team - Brad Butterworth, Murray Jones, Simon Daubney, Warwick Fleury and Dean Phipps - through three America's Cup campaigns.
Whether they would be as loyal in defeat is still to be tested.
By all accounts Coutts is a practical joker. There was the high school caning for hosing down an entire classroom (with pupils inside).
There was the time his team-mates hoisted his car on to blocks, preventing his quick getaway to an urgent meeting.
There was the archery competition at his wedding - that had to be a joke.
But if there is a warm, jovial, open, self-effacing and selfless side to Russell Coutts, the public never gets to see it, and that's a problem, says public relations consultant Jenny Raynish.
"In New Zealand, if you're not prepared to front up you're seen as untrustworthy," she says of Coutts.
Attaining national hero status requires two things, she adds: winning, then sharing that win with the public.
Coutts may have waved from the back of trucks during ticker-tape parades, may have hoisted the America's Cup high in front of the cheering crowds at the Viaduct Basin, and raised Dean Barker's arm with his but, says Raynish, you never really felt he was truly sharing his victory with the public or that he wanted us to be part of his success.
Instead, all she sees in his tight-jawed, cold-eyed expression are the virtues of a mercenary.
Polls suggesting 60 per cent of us do not believe Coutts betrayed his country when he ditched Team New Zealand in favour of the Swiss are arguably because we never really thought he was ours anyway.
And his pre-race comments, said more than once, that it would be better for the America's Cup (read me) if it were sailed elsewhere, suggest he hasn't felt like a New Zealander for some time either.
Sure, he seems to think the best and brightest are staying away from the cup while it's sailed in New Zealand, and that there's no joy in winning a second-rate tournament.
But if he wants true top-level international competition, he could go back to the Olympics.
And sure, he won the America's Cup for New Zealand twice and the reputed $5 million offered by Bertarelli would have been hard to turn down, but does he remember that without public funding and goodwill, he never would have been an America's Cup skipper at all?
Okay, so he donated a sailing trophy to his old school, Otago Boys High, and helps out at his old Dunedin training-ground, the Ravensbourne Yacht Club, helping raise funds for a 29ers trust and running occasional coaching clinics.
But his legacy for ever more will be that he betrayed New Zealand.
Chris Dickson, Coutts's rival since those early days in the P Class, has his own chilling gaze, but with Dickson you also get a clear image of his mercurial, brattish, prattish, sometimes mischievous personality.
With Coutts, all you get is the gaze.
Would Coutts, for example, have had the wit displayed by Dickson when asked for three words to describe Coutts as a competitor?
"No comment," comes the reply.
"That's only two words."
"No comment, thanks."
Dickson may have had unpleasant outbursts at post-race press conferences, but when he shows up - and this week that wasn't often - Coutts and Butterworth tend to behave like naughty schoolboys, giggling and whispering behind their hands.
Dickson may have at times displayed the tantrum-throwing behaviour of a sore loser.
But Coutts has had his share of no-shows by reason of what looks like sulking, or for what his father used to call his retreat into Russell-land - the intense introspection that has turned him into a winner.
But maybe competitive sailing does that to people. As former America's Cup skipper, match-racing champion, commentator and Coutts admirer Ed Baird says in a borrowed quotation, "show me a good loser and I'll show you a good loser".
Yet even the equally competitive Dean Barker is more open and more real and more lovable - an image aided, no doubt, by the famous and beautiful girlfriend. Even the Washington Post described Dean Barker this week as "a handsome young man with a handsome girlfriend (or partner as it's said here), national field hockey star Mandy Smith. The magazine-cover couple live in a handsome Auckland house overlooking the Waitemata Harbour, Barker's family owns a successful clothing store, he drives a sporty Lexus convertible and as a long-time acquaintance put it, 'Dean has never been without a nice car and a nice set of golf clubs in the boot'."
Judging by their stories, the international media have no similar fascination with Russell Coutts as a person, beyond his sailing.
"Where's Russell's story?" complains Jenny Raynish. Even his 1996 biography Course to Victory is more about sailing than it is about him.
There's a son, Grayson, from his first marriage to Mandy. Another son, Michael, from his second to Jenny, and another baby on the way.
We know he's from a sailing family and that his father, Alan, died two years ago.
Only recently, no doubt as part of a public relations/destabilising strategy, have we been let in on his side of why he left Team New Zealand - an unspecified tax liability, a debt to sponsors, the requirement for a $2 million charitable donation and so on.
Otherwise Russell Coutts is indeed a closed book.
Some may envy and admire his ability to shield his family and private life from publicity. Respect it even.
But clearly one of the points of tension between Blake and Coutts in the last campaign was Coutts' disrespect for sponsors, who require a very public payback, whereas Coutts is obviously more comfortable as the servant of a single patron.
Had he struck a deal to stay with Team New Zealand as Blake's successor to the CEO role, it is doubtful he would have been any good at the schmoozing and back-slapping that is required to wring the dollars from corporate and private wallets.
According to Herald columnist Brian Gaynor, had Coutts better understood business (and here he and Switzerland sharply diverge) he would not have found the conditions for taking on the syndicate laid down by the outgoing trustees nearly as onerous as he made out.
Certainly Coutts was widely praised for the leadership qualities he displayed in standing aside at the last race of the 2000 defence in favour of his protege, Dean Barker. No doubt he was expecting to continue as Barker's boss.
But equally, he displays a disturbing level of hypocrisy when you compare his defection to Alinghi with his earlier treatment of defecting sailor Ross Halcrow.
It was 1997 when, in a move startling in its similarities with Coutts' three years later, Halcrow turned down the opportunity to stay with Team New Zealand for the 2000 defence and opted for a better financial deal with Young America.
At the end of his letter to Coutts explaining his decision, Halcrow said he hoped "to race with you in the future and continue our friendship".
In his reply Coutts made it clear he felt personally betrayed, that New Zealand had been betrayed, that he would never sail with him again, let alone play golf, and that he had better "start making some new friends" concluding, "that's not the way I do business or treat my friends that have been loyal to me".
The same Russell Coutts who methodically checks the tides, the windshifts, the subtleties of the boat, will have also gauged well in advance what the reaction would be when he stunned the nation with the news he was leaving Team New Zealand to sail for the Swiss - and taking the cream of our sailing talent with him.
He would have been mentally prepared for it, enough that it would have largely washed off him.
Ed Baird certainly thinks that's the way it would have been.
"Eighty to 90 per cent of the things that have happened over him going to Alinghi he would have anticipated. He's very self-assured and believes where he's going is the best way to go."
In successive interviews with the international press, he stresses his immense enjoyment at sailing for the Swiss and that "there's no question for me it was time for a change".
Earlier this month he told American sports network ESPN that Team New Zealand's "Loyal" campaign had made him even more determined.
Says Ed Baird: "He has a tremendous ability to focus and a unique ability to raise his game when it gets the most difficult. The greater the challenge, the more intense and focused he becomes. He's unique for that."
Harold Bennett, race director for this challenge and the man who decides if the wind is right for racing, knows Coutts well from the days he was former national youth coach, taking him to three world youth championships.
"He hasn't changed much since then," says Bennett.
"He's always been fiercely competitive, with a good understanding of the sport and the rules. He was always dreaming up new ideas."
Should Coutts indeed be again holding the America's Cup aloft any day soon, Bennett hopes New Zealand "will recognise the feat", but he knows that's unrealistic.
"I think the country will be bitter. But I don't think it will bother him. He's able to shoulder things."
Of course he will smile - or is that a baring of teeth before it bites our legs off?
And of course he would secure another entry in the America's Cup record book - first skipper to take the cup to Europe.
As Ed Baird says, "There's some serious history going on here."
Continuous coverage America's Cup racing will begin on nzherald.co.nz at 12.30pm.
Racing schedule and results
By JAN CORBETT