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Richard Yallop
February 16, 1987
The Aussies' America's Cup fairy tale was fun while it lasted
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February 16, 1987

Still Upbeat Down Under

The Aussies' America's Cup fairy tale was fun while it lasted

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We all recall that day in 1983 when Australia won the America's Cup. We ran into the streets and tooted our car horns, while the prime minister, Bob Hawke, was being drenched in champagne at the Royal Perth Yacht Club. The nation had popped its cork.

And now it's gone, and the America's Cup has reverted to what it was for 132 years—a seemingly unattainable U.S. possession. The fairy tale of how the little country of 15 million Down Under beat the giant Uncle Sam is over, and we can all get back to reality.

Fremantle held a joyous wake. From the time Dennis Conner took a 2-0 lead in the best-of-seven final, the Australian public had resigned itself to defeat, and when it was all over, Aussies poured into the harbor to acclaim Conner as much as to express pride at the efforts of Iain Murray and his beaten Kookaburra III crew. Not a whistle or a jeer greeted the beaten defenders. Typical of the loyal home spectators was the man who turned out each day on the breakwater carrying the banner IAIN MURRAY WALKS ON WATER. He was still there on the final evening, proudly flying his flag, as Kookaburra came in after being whipped 4-0. In the circumstances, perhaps the banner should have read DENNIS CONNER FLIES ON WATER.

An American tourist from Boston expressed surprise at how Australians could still be cheering their boat when Kookaburra was such an obvious loser. He hadn't reckoned with the Australian love for the underdog and the culture's attachment to the notion of the "fair-go." The warmth of the reception given to Murray seemed so different from the cool American response to Conner when he lost in 1983.

"I felt a sense of disappointment," said Geoff Christian of the West Australian, "but it was overtaken by the realization that the Cup was only on loan, like gamblers' winnings. The only disappointment was that they didn't win a race."

Australia is a land with a long sporting tradition, particularly in tennis, track and field, swimming and cricket, and it is also a country that attaches great importance to sporting success. The tolerance toward this failure seemed in part to stem from the knowledge that the odds were stacked against the Kookaburra crew, which was sailing its first America's Cup, while Conner and some of his crew on Stars & Stripes were sailing their fourth.

Australia's loss was made easier to bear because of the people's admiration for the man who single-mindedly set about regaining the Cup he lost in Newport. As Christian put it, "[Australians] accept the fact that it has gone back to the man who lost it in '83. In the land of the 'fair-go,' they would see that as justice." The prime minister echoed that sentiment when he told Conner, "If the Cup had to go somewhere else, I would rather it went to you."

If Conner, gracious and generous in victory, endeared himself to the Australian public, the Stars & Stripes syndicate head, Malin Burnham, did not when he criticized the 28-year-old Murray for lack of aggression after Kookaburra III had lost her third successive race. He told a radio reporter, "This kid is never going to win the America's Cup—ever." Burnham later apologized for causing offense, but the tenor of his remark had reflected the win-at-all-costs determination that brought Conner—and America—the Cup.

Yet within a day of his defeat, Murray, who filled the combined roles of designer, skipper and syndicate manager, was planning for 1990. "The desire to win it is stronger than ever," he said. "What happened in '83 was that the Americans got out-tech'd by Alan Bond's syndicate. This time they came in with some big guns, and we were out-tech'd."

The disappointment was strongest among members of the Bond syndicate, who won the Cup in '83. Ben Lexcen, the designer of the winged keel, said, "I don't like losing it when we struggled for 15 years to get it. It's very difficult to retain. The United States is a technical country, and we're a country of farmers and people who dig the soil. This is just a great sunburned mine."

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