It is surprising to find that the oldest international sporting competition doesn’t involve a round ball. This distinction belongs to the America’s Cup, begun in 1851, forty-five years before the Olympics and seventy-nine years before the new kid on the block – the soccer World Cup. Unfortunately, the America’s Cup is still drawing the same size audience as it did when women had whale-bone inserts in their corsets – maybe less.
Never the less, the America’s Cup is still the marquee sailing event on everyone’s sporting calendar. Indeed, a lot of the interest being generated by the America’s Cup currently has less to do with sailing and more to do with technology. Dennis Connor, arguably one of the sport’s greatest legends, once said “Design has taken the place of what sailing used to be.” As a result the majestic schooners of yester-year have been replaced by ultra-light hydrofoils with wings instead of the more traditional sails. There are literally rocket scientists designing these beasts. What is the end result? Speed.
The America’s Cup organisers are hoping that speed combined with sleek looks and crewmen who look more like bobsledders than sailors will lead to a wider audience. They’re probably right. NBC thinks so. They’ve bought the broadcast rights to the America’s Cup in the hopes of tapping into the event’s novelty, despite being the oldest international sporting competition. The jury is still out on how well the TV campaign is progressing with the public at this stage, but for a sailor it sure is exciting to watch.
What does this mean for actual sailing? Most of us probably have a lot in common with Dennis Connor – apart from the fact we’re not likely to be caught dead in spandex on the bow of a wafer thin hull careening along at 50 knots (100kmh) we’re also not likely to be taken in by the all the trappings of technology. Fundamentally we get a real kick out of making the sails work by ourselves. Dare I say it but some of us may be wondering if the latest version of the America’s Cup even falls into the category of ‘sailing’.
Still, if the sport is to evolve (and attract more participants) we should probably get on board the technology train. Let’s face it, actual sailing hasn’t advanced all that much (for better or worse). Sure, there’s a bit of carbon-fibre around, GPS chart-plotters and fancy laminate sails, but that’s about all there is to show after 165 odd years of modern yachting. On the other hand the America’s Cup is so innovative as to be scary. The hullabaloo surrounding the America’s Cup may seem to detract from the world of actual sailing but the truth is that it is going to change the sport forever.