The name Eric Moussambani Malonga most probably means very little to racing sailors reading this blog but let me tweak your memory. It was the 2000 Summer Olympic Games when the Equatoguinean, who had never seen an Olympic-sized swimming pool before, contested his heat in the 100 metres freestyle unopposed after two fellow athletes were disqualified for false starts. The time recorded was an astonishingly slow 1 minute 52 seconds (the current world record is 46.91 seconds), and the athlete had gained entry to the Games without meeting minimum qualification records via a wildcard system designed to encourage participation in developing countries.
Pointless as that race was, a ghost race if you like, this guy became the star of those Games. He was nicknamed ‘Eric the Eel’ and, I kid you not, is today the national swimming coach for Equatorial Guinea. Fair play to our Eric. Now you remember him, right? It was the highlight of those Games and he entered Olympic folklore whilst becoming a national hero back in his homeland. Eric the Eel’s race was the all-time best ghost race in my lifetime. I’m sure there are others – and the America’s Cup has had a few, most notably when the Swedes pulled out following the awful death of Andrew ‘Bart’ Simpson in 2013. But it’s the one that stays in my mind.
So, following the official withdrawal of American Magic from the final Round Robins of the Prada Cup, and after a lengthy delay from Iain Murray and the Race Organisers as they juggled media, team and event interests (nothing is easy in the America’s Cup), we are faced with both Ineos and Prada being forced to sail ghost races in order to officially collect the points for their Magic match-ups. Thankfully everyone saw sense and canned the Friday racing so now we have two official proper races and two races where the boats have to start and be in full race mode ahead of the Race Committee black flagging a few minutes after the start and awarding the points.
However, if Team Ineos smoke Prada in the first race as is highly likely because the Italians are woefully poor at actually racing, rather than just looking good – on a style contest they would win, but I hate to tell them that this is actually a yacht race – then we have to wait and see if both teams can agree to a pointless Sunday race with Team Ineos already through to the final.
This is actually a big moment for the British. This could be the Grant Dalton moment in San Francisco where he agreed to give Oracle a lay day with one hand on the Cup and we all know what happened thereafter. If I were Grant Simmer, I would play hard ball here. What is the point in going out and putting the boat at maximum stress to compete when the downside is so great?
Catch a runner around a peel away, get too much heel and you know what – Ineos would capsize too and there’s no way on planet earth that Ben Ainslie would take a conservative call, just like Dean Barker didn’t. They are racing sailors, pilots if you like, and their DNA is hard-wired differently to you and I. The risk here is all on the British and whilst they won’t win any popularity contests with the event organisers, media or the Italians who frankly cares?
And what’s more, Prada could find something in that race that changes the course of this whole event. Every sailor knows that these boats are in the early foothills of development and time on the water racing is everything so why hand, what could be your closest opponent in the coming weeks, poor as the Italians are, any race time?
My view is that it is time to play the hardest of hardball for the Brits. They have done an epic job getting the platform up to the Prada level in order to compete. My suspicion is that Magic had another gear as evidenced by how they smoked away from Prada, so the Ineos development cycle has a long way to run. It is crucial now that they use the time whilst Prada and Magic contest the semi-finals to find the next percentage gains because if Magic comes out of the shed a rocketship (and I fully expect it to), then it’s all on for the Prada Cup Final. An extra day in the shed arguably isn’t the game-changer but having the boat safe and in one piece is. A freak failure on Sunday, a capsize or a collision is just too risky to take in these machines.
This is the America’s Cup. On one level it’s a friendly competition between nations. On another it’s incredible sportsmanship as shown so admirably with the American Magic situation. But on another level it’s the most ruthless, unedifying, blood-hungry sport imaginable.
The Ineos Lions might just have to start showing their teeth if they want to be King of the Jungle in 2021.
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