In the 1974 film Bang the Drum Slowly, one of the characters, a
baseball pitcher named Henry Wiggen, hustles unsuspecting fans by
playing a card game called TEGWAR -- The Exciting Game Without Any
Rules. The slick-talking Wiggen missed his calling. He should be
sailing in the America's Cup.
I almost slipped up and wrote, a sporting event called the
America's Cup. The America's Cup isn't a sporting event. Sporting
events have rules. They have lines that can't be crossed without
penalty, and time limits that can't be exceeded. The end of the
season is the end of the season. To enforce the rules, sporting
events have referees, umpires or judges who make unambiguous
decisions: safe or out, fair or foul, good or bad. Winners and
losers emerge. Sports fans like it that way.
The America's Cup operates on a different theory. Rules are made
to be negotiated. Getting one's boat across the line first is only
a small part of the campaign. Race results are protested, appealed
and scrutinized for days under threats of legal action. Rules
agreed to by all parties in January are flushed down the toilet in
April, and a new set of rules is negotiated. Then all the parties
shake hands, clap one another on the back and assure a bewildered
world that what has just transpired was fair and for the
betterment of the sport.
There I go again. I keep thinking the America's Cup is a
sporting event. The most recent example that it is not came on
April 4 when the San Diego Yacht Club in effect declared a
mistrial of the trials. The two biggest names in the America's
Cup, Dennis Conner and Bill Koch, were poised to meet in a
one-race sail-off that would end the 12-race defender's
semifinals, a three-boat round-robin that had started on March
18. The winner would advance to the defender's finals against
Young America, which had already secured a spot in the finals by
finishing the semis with the highest point total. The
Conner-Koch loser would go home.
The prospect of a sail-off actually generated some interest in
the interminable Cup preliminaries. Would Koch's Mighty Mary,
sailed by 15 women and one man, knock off Mr. America's Cup
himself, a living, breathing male chauvinist pig? Tune to ESPN
at 4 p.m. EDT for live coverage.
Ah, but neither Conner nor Koch was ready to go home. Awaiting
the loser was not only humiliation but, worse, the wrath of his
corporate sponsors, who were distressed that their floating
billboards would be packed away earlier than expected. So even
as ESPN was promoting this sail-off, backroom negotiations were
being held among the three U.S. syndicates. Two hours before the
race they agreed on a new format that rendered the three months
of sailing to that date all but meaningless. Now, instead of a
best-of-11 series between two boats in the defender's finals,
all three yachts will advance to a 12-race round-robin, with
Young America beginning the finals with two points, Mighty Mary
with one point (for having beaten Conner in the anticlimatic
sail-off) and Conner's Stars & Stripes with no points.
All three boats got something they wanted. For Conner, increased
exposure for his sponsors. For Koch, more time for his crew to get
used to Mighty Mary, which had become available only six weeks
earlier. For Young America, an advantage going into the final
round. The San Diego Yacht Club claimed the change would ensure
that the strongest defender would represent the U.S. in the Cup
finals. Accusations by the press that the change undermined the
credibility of the event were dismissed as the imprecations of
small minds. ``We undersell the America's Cup if we think it's as
simple as a tennis tournament,'' says John Marshall, president of
PACT 95, the syndicate that owns Young America. ``It's much more
complex. Negotiation is part of the competition.''
What a concept. Braves-Twins, tie score in the ninth, Game 7, 1991
World Series. A commissioner's timeout is called. The Series is
extended to best of 13.
Rangers-Devils, Game 7, 1994 NHL Eastern Conference finals.
Sudden-death overtime. Commissioner Gary Bettman sees his dream of
the first Ranger Stanley Cup in 54 years possibly disappearing on
a fluke New Jersey goal. Commissioner's timeout. The principals
decide both teams will advance to the Cup finals for a three-team
round-robin against the Canucks. But the Canucks will start every
game with a 1-0 lead.
``It's unsettling for sports fans to see the rules changed,''
says Marshall. ``But for Cup fans it's not unsettling. The
America's Cup is much more like the real world than it is like
Too true. The real world, of course, is the biggest game of
TEGWAR going. So bring on Jimmy Carter as commodore. All
off-the-water protests will be argued by Johnnie Cochran and
refuted by Donald Fehr. Appeals must be filed through Alan
Dershowitz. May the fastest talker with a boat win.
Welcome to the 1995 America's Cup, an event truly made for its
time. Just don't call it a sporting event.