James Farmer


Is the America's Cup a poisoned chalice for New Zealand?

Tuesday, May 09, 2023

We all remember the excitement when Sir Peter Blake led Team New Zealand to win the America’s Cup from the United States in 1995, with the whole country getting behind the “red socks” campaign to raise money to ensure that the team got to the finish line.  Winning it from “Dirty Dennis” Connor, who was seen to be unsporting and who didn’t play fair, was the icing on the cake.  However, after Blake left, the Cup was lost to Alinghi but then won back again by Team NZ under Grant Dalton from Oracle in 2017 and then successfully defended in Auckland in 2021 with the aid of substantial New Zealand public money and other local support. 

It has all been downhill since.  Dalton cajoled the Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron, which under the America’s Cup Deed of Gift is the true holder and trustee for the Cup, into agreeing to the next defence (in 2024) being hosted by Barcelona in Spain.  As a softener to the disappointment and anger that was generated, he told a RNZYS members’ meeting that one of the preliminary regattas leading up to the Challenge Event would be held in Auckland.  That promise will not be kept.  Only one of the preliminary regattas will be held outside Spain and not in New Zealand.  But, far worse than that, the City chosen for that event is Jeddah in Saudi Arabia, a country with the worst human rights record in the modern world and noted for its frequent public executions (by beheading) – 81 in one day last year - and including women and young men who were minors at the time of their convictions.  It has also intervened by air strikes in neighbouring Yemen and contributed significantly to the famine that war in that country has caused. The kidnapping and dismembering of a leading US-educated and resident journalist, Jamal Khashoggi, in the Saudi Embassy in Turkey, orchestrated by Crown Prince Bin Salman, has added to the international outrage of Saudi’s cruel and immoral regime. 

In recent years, instead of setting out to reform its laws and culture, the Saudi Royals who run the country have attempted to buy respectability by its “sportswashing” programme, spending literally billions of dollars luring sports teams to Saudi and establishing international events there.  Golf, F1 racing, horse racing and tennis feature, as did football until FIFA recently rejected Saudi sponsorship. Not so Team NZ.  To the contrary. On TV3 News on 30 April following the Jeddah announcement - https://www.newshub.co.nz/home/sport/2023/04/america-s-cup-saudi-arabia-to-host-preliminary-pre-regatta.html - Dalton responded to strong criticisms of the Saudi regime by Leon Goldsmith, Professor of Middle Eastern Studies at Otago University, by claiming that “on the inside” he would be able to achieve more than someone “on a soapbox on the outside”. 

Grant Dalton leading Saudi into an enlightened human rights era? Really. 

The Team NZ decision – ok, the decision of America’s Cup Events (ACE), the Team NZ controlled entity that manages the Event – to go to Saudi has provoked criticism not just of that decision.  It has also caused some to look back over the history in recent years at the hypocrisy of the those running the team and of Grant Dalton in particular who seems likely to take over and enhance Dennis Connor’s title of “Dirty Dennis”.

Writing in STUFF, Dana Johanssen, who covered and reported on America’s Cup events for over a decade, pointed to Dalton’s claim as a challenger that by switching from conventional monohulls to multihulls Larry Ellison and Russell Coutts, who held the Cup for Oracle and the Golden Gate Yacht Club, were deliberately endeavouring to disadvantage challenges by teams such as Team NZ who did not have billionaire support (not in fact true – Matteo de Nora has provided huge financial support to Team NZ).  As she pointed out, Team NZ, after winning the Cup in Bermuda, then instituted a 75 foot foiling monohull, a boat that did not exist and which was more expensive to design and develop than any previous AC yacht.  See https://www.stuff.co.nz/sport/other-sports/131933486/hypocrisy-maybe-its-team-new-zealands-thing

What of the RNZYS?  As referred to, it is the actual holder of the Cup, not Team NZ.  As a challenger during the periods when others held the Cup, the challenge was always in the Squadron’s name because under the Deed of Gift of the Cup only yacht clubs may participate in an America’s Cup Event.  Similarly, the holder of the Cup for the time being assumes the role of Trustee for the Cup.  However, it is normal practice for yacht clubs, including the RNZYS, to contract with professional teams to find the funding and to manage the challenge or defence as the case may be. 

The holder of the Cup for the time being determines the location of its defence to challenges that are made.  There is a respectable legal argument that the terms of the Deed of Gift do not allow for the defence to take place other than in the home waters of the defending Club.  Whether that is so or not, the defending Club as the Trustee for the Cup certainly cannot assign its Trust duties to another entity.  Under duress (with Dalton threatening to put Team NZ into liquidation if his wish to take the Cup off-shore was not agreed to), the leaders of the RNZYS succumbed to the defence being taken to Barcelona.There are many (including me) who think that Dalton’s bluff should have been called.

The decision to hold one of the preliminary regattas, which are required under the AC Protocol, in Jeddah brings in a whole new dimension which goes far beyond a mere sporting event, no matter how major.  Both Team New Zealand and the Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron have “New Zealand” in their names.  As such, Team New Zealand says to the World that it represents this country.  The RNZYS, having Royal patronage also, claims an analogous status.  Participating in and hosting a major sporting event in Jeddah under the New Zealand banner will do huge damage to the reputation of this country as one that respects and advocates human rights.  Its proud boast as the first country in the world to give voting rights to women and which has seen women hold the positions of Governor-General, Prime Minister and Chief Justice, not just once but a number of times, will be tarnished with the same label of hypocrit that has been justifiably levelled at Team NZ. This view led me to write to the NZ Herald (published 1 May) urging both Team NZ and the RNZYS to remove “New Zealand” from their names if they were to lend support to Saudi’s sportswashing bribery. 

All of this takes us back to the cry of “sport and politics don’t mix” when protests were made about plans to send the All Blacks to South Africa during the apartheid era. There is no doubt that, with the assistance of the High Court, the fact that the All Black team did not go was a significant contributor to the ultimate end of apartheid in South Africa.  Dalton’s claim that his taking Saudi money to hold an America’s Cup regatta will help end human rights abuses is of course self-serving nonsense.  The effect will be the opposite.  The fact that Challengers face the unenviable choice of not going to Saudi in support of moral principle and thereby being excluded from taking part in the Challenger series or of taking part to remain in the Cup is itself the outcome of another form of abuse of power.

Jim Farmer
8 May 2023




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