Ellison's Oracle squad should have had more American feel
It's hard to believe, but Larry Ellison has spent more money trying to win the America's Cup over the past six years than the total of every 12-meter syndicate between 1958 and 1983, combined. And yet, for the first time in the 156-year history of the America's Cup, no American boat will race past the semifinals.
But a closer inspection of the sailors on the top teams featured a large number of Americans in key roles. The original Deed of Gift for the America's Cup called for a "friendly competition between foreign countries." The idea was to test the design, building and sailing skills of one nation against another. But in 2003, Switzerland's Ernesto Bertarelli recruited an international cast of designers and sailors and arranged for all of them to have Swiss residency. The action certainly went against the spirit of the original Deed. Then, the Swiss went out and won.
Buying into the concept, Ellison became the Challenger of Record for the 2007 match and mutually agreed to waive the nationality requirement all together.
So we have a New Zealand skipper of an American boat, an American tactician on the New Zealand boat, an Australian helmsman on the Italian boat, two Americans vying to steer the Swiss boat (with a New Zealand tactician), and a New Zealand tactician on the Spanish boat with an American coach (Paul Cayard). To cap it off, there's also an American managing race committee operations for the Swiss in Spain.
Confused? So is everyone else.
When the America's Cup returns to its nationalistic roots, it will become an important event again. But now, it is an international free-for-all, and no one knows who to cheer for.
Ellison would have been better off fielding a team of talented Americans. There are plenty of top sailors available. Instead, Ellison bet heavily on New Zealander Chris Dickson, who has a long history of falling apart when the pressure is on, and this year was no exception. In the early round-robin races, Ellison's BMW Oracle Racing (USA 98) went undefeated; but as the second round came to a close, Dickson started losing races. First, he lost to China due to an equipment failure. It was China's only victory.
The biggest setback was a critical race against New Zealand in the last race of the second round robin. The winner would earn the top seed and could select the weakest team to race against. Dickson crumbled and lost the top spot. I thought USA had the speed to defeat Italy in seven or eight races in the best-of-nine semifinals. Instead, Italy won in a crushing 5-1 series. But the losses came as a result of poor starts and tactics. It was apparent to all that Dickson was not prepared, and in the last race, he was relieved of his duties.
Dickson turned out to be the weak link. He is a difficult person to get along with. But Ellison gave Dickson full control over every facet of the campaign. Along with the skipper title, Dickson was named CEO. Bad call. In what other sport can you have one person playing quarterback, running the PR office, managing the budget, selecting all personnel and guiding the highly complex design and construction operations?
The answer: none.
After Oracle was eliminated, Ellison said he planned to continue to pursue the America's Cup. Many hope he selects an American team to get the job done. Clearly, the other teams that beat him believe in American sailors, coaches and designers.
Gary Jobson is a sailing analyst for ESPN. He is a former collegiate sailor and was a tactician for the 1977 America's Cup-winning yacht Courageous.
In addition to ESPN, Jobson has covered the America's Cup for ABC's Good Morning America, Nightline and Wide World of Sports. He served as a commentator for TBS' coverage of yachting at the Goodwill Games from Moscow in 1986 and Seattle in 1990. He covered yachting at the 1988 and 2000 Olympics for NBC Sports, winning an Emmy Award for the 1988 Games in South Korea.
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