Masterton, New Zealand.
Ostensibly it was a contest between Emirates Team New Zealand and Oracle Team USA. But as the America’s Cup yachting regatta tacked and gybed to its nail-biting conclusion on San Francisco Bay, it had morphed into something else.
The victorious Team USA may have flown the Stars and Stripes and been bankrolled by an American software billionaire, Larry Ellison; but as their boat remorselessly ate into what had seemed an unassailable New Zealand lead, a fingernail-chewing audience of four million Kiwis found it hard to see past the figure of Jimmy Spithill, Oracle’s Australian skipper.
Forget the Americans. This was the latest round in one of the longest running sporting feuds in history: New Zealand v. Australia. The fact that the Oracle campaign was masterminded by a Kiwi, Sir Russell Coutts, and that eight of the Oracle crew were New Zealanders — more than any other nationality — was neither here nor there.
Spithill became the focal point for a nation’s collective anxieties. New Zealanders are haunted by memories of previous humiliations at the hands of Australia — none more so than in the rugby world cup semi-final of 2003, won 22-10 by the Wallabies. The Australian captain George Gregan’s taunt in the dying moments of that match — ‘Four more years, boys, four more years!’ — is burnt into the New Zealand psyche.
The other fear haunting New Zealand sports fans is that their heroes might be chokers, with a fatal propensity for losing their nerve at crucial moments. Sex therapists might call it performance anxiety, in which insidious self-doubt feeds on itself and becomes self-fulfilling. You could sense it taking hold in the New Zealand team as Spithill’s crew clawed their way back into the contest.
The c-word was first heard at the time of the 1999 rugby world cup semi-final against France, when New Zealand watched in horror as red-hot favourites the All Blacks snatched defeat from the jaws of victory after leading 24-10. It was again being muttered sotto voce by dismayed fans in the last days of the America’s Cup campaign, as Team New Zealand’s lead inexorably slipped away.
Certainly, the mental pressure on the Kiwis, watching their winning margin shrink race by race and burdened by the immense weight of a nation’s expectations (whipped up by cheerleaders in the overheated New Zealand media), must have been overwhelming.
Moreover, Spithill had the psychological advantage of starting from so far behind he had nothing to lose. But did the Kiwis choke? New Zealand skipper Dean Barker admitted making tactical errors in the later stages of the regatta, but the decisive factor appears to have been last-minute technical adjustments that coaxed vital extra knots out of the American boat. Ironically, the tweaking was done by a team flown in from New Zealand, where most of the boat was built.
There was the luck factor too. On day five, New Zealand was comfortably ahead when racing was abandoned because of high winds. But far more heartbreaking for the Kiwis was day ten, when light winds meant the race wasn’t completed within the allowed 40 minutes — a time limit imposed so that broadcasters could keep to their schedules. With New Zealand leading by a kilometre and the race 90 per cent completed, sailing was curtailed. Another few minutes, and the world’s oldest sporting trophy would have been on its way to Auckland. It was the defining moment of the regatta, and a demonstration of the power of television.
But those factors aside, the impression lingers that Spithill turned the psychological blowtorch on his opponents. When the pressure is on, Australians seem just that much more confident, more assertive.
Spithill is brash, combative and a stranger to self-doubt — the type of Australian sportsman, like the bantam rooster Gregan, who gets under New Zealand’s skin. Wellington’s Dominion Post noted that he played the role of pantomime villain to perfection.
New Zealanders bristle with resentment at Australian braggadocio, but they might well ask whether their sports people could do with a bit of that swagger. Spithill believed Oracle could overcome an 8-1 deficit even when no one else did. He and Barker were a study in contrasts — the Australian confident and assertive despite overwhelming odds against him, the Kiwi cautious and understated even when the cup seemed comfortably within his grasp.
Barker comes from a tradition that values modesty and reticence. New Zealand sportsmen who display so much as a trace of hubris risk being labelled as up themselves. Only in recent years have the All Blacks allowed themselves a moment’s jubilation after scoring; for generations, they would jog back from the goal line with their heads down, as if apologetic for drawing attention to themselves. It may be a treasonous suggestion, but perhaps the low-key shtick has been taken a bit too far.
The other question New Zealanders should be asking is whether they invest more emotion in sport than is good for them. The America’s Cup became a national melodrama — a soap opera in which people gathered in their hundreds in public venues to watch the races unfold. Fist-pumping exhilaration at New Zealand’s early victories turned to despair as Spithill ratcheted up the pressure. The most emotionally involved spectators seemed to be women, many of whom, it’s fair to say, would have previously been only dimly aware the America’s Cup existed.
There was a strange sociological phenomenon in play here: almost a mild form of hysteria. New Zealand’s self-image is heavily dependent on its undoubted prowess in a relatively small range of sports. At such times it reveals itself as a tiny country justifiably proud of punching above its weight, but overanxious to prove itself — and inclined to lapse into anguished breast-beating when things don’t work out. And it’s never harder to take than when it’s an Australian rubbing our noses in the dirt.
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Karl du Fresne is a writer from the Wairarapa region of New Zealand.
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