Photo (c) TVNZ 2013
1.5 million of us Kiwis watched the America's Cup, which is pretty impressive in a country of a little over 4 million. Even as I turned on my TV at 8 every morning and waited impatiently to see if the winds would be right in San Francisco Bay I wondered why. After all, the America's Cup must be as far from the mythical Kiwi image we all try and project as it's possible to get.
For a start, two syndicates spending more than a quarter of a billion between them on yachts that would have no use whatsoever once one of them crossed the final line seems to give a pretty big two fingered salute to our clean and green self talk, even if they are wind powered. And then there's the whole cup ethos. Ever since the schooner America beat the field in the Isle of Wight race in 1851 to claim the cup for the first time, it has been a contest of egos between extremely rich men for a prize with no real intrinsic value. What with sailing being probably the most highly regulated sport on the planet, and with the yachts being taken from the water to be weighed and measured after every race, it is a contest in which it is pretty near impossible to actually cheat. But within the rules laid down for the conduct of the race and for the construction of the boats the tradition of the cup has always been that competitors use all their vast reserves of money and ingenuity and personnel to carve out some small advantage for themselves. So the contest is one of management, where the skills of designer, engineer, sailmaker, boatbuilder, programmer and, occasionally, lawyer are as decisive as those of helmsman and navigator. You can't win the America's cup without having lots and lots of money, or at least knowing where to get it. You can't win if you allow your sympathy for your opponent get in the way of your desire to be first. As Sir Peter Blake said,
"To win, you have to believe you can do it. You have to be passionate about it. You have to really "want" the result - even if this means years of work."
So how does this sit with us Kiwis with our self professed egalitarianism and our instinctive empathy with the underdog? Why does this waterborne parallel of Formula One car racing take on such symbolic significance for us? Why are we gripped by a contest where the winner is the one who can best get one over the other guy? Why in the country which first enfranchised women and where we took social responsibility so seriously do we become obsessed by a pointless competition between extremely rich men?
We all live fairly close to the sea, so a lot of us sail, or at least have had a crack at it. Many of us have had the experience of actually racing or of crewing for a mate on the occasional Saturday afternoon, so we do know the peculiar joys and frustrations of harvesting winds and tides in order to move a boat in a certain direction.
Partly it's spectacle. With the quality of television graphics (designed and developed in New Zealand, of course) and the omnipresence of cameras on and below and above and beside the boats even the least nautically minded spectators can grasp the fundamentals of the race and the subtlety of the tactics. Watched from shore a yacht race is a few triangles of cloth moving picturesquely but incomprehensibly in slow motion in the far distance. On an LCD widescreen it is a gripping, high powered duel, demanding from its participants high levels of intelligence and muscle power, steely nerves, patience and quick decision making.
But there's more than that. To quote Peter Blake again,
"The America’s Cup is what it is because it is so difficult to win.
It is not a game for armchair admirals.
It is not a game for the person who is not prepared to come back.
It is not a game for the faint hearted.
It is a game for those who are not scared of pitting themselves against the best that the world has to offer.
It’s a game where winning is almost impossible, almost, but not impossible.
And this is why it is worth fighting for. It is the difficulty that gives any challenge some sense.
This is the essence of life itself."
So the America's cup is the apex of sporting achievement, a task as difficult to accomplish as climbing Everest, and inviting those who dare to knock the b****** off. I guess this explains the attraction for those turning the grinders or squinting anxiously at the sail, the horizon and the opponent, but it still doesn't explain the near religious preoccupation with the cup by those of us who would think twice about being on board the boat if we thought all that sea spray might get us a bit damp or that being out on the bay for so long might cause us to miss our tea.
At the same time that I was compulsively consulting the weather forecast for North Western California as often as I was for Dunedin, I was reading Rene Girard, and he put things into perspective for me. Seen in the light of Girard, the cup, and the reactions of people around me to the unfolding dramatic narrative of challenge and defence and whitewash and slow, inexorable comeback, became a sort of lived exemplar of much of what I was reading. In short, the phenomena of mimesis, community formation through hero worship and scapegoating and the preservation of the process in mythmaking seemed to be playing out all around me.
In long, I hope I can unpack all of that at another time.