Arguing who the greatest is, in any sport, is a subjective process that is guaranteed to elicit a counter argument. If I were to say that, in my opinion, Lewis Hamilton is the greatest Formula One driver of all time, I can be damn sure that the fans of Michael Schumacher, Ayrton Senna, Jim Clark or Fangio will come out of the woodwork.
Equally, my argument that Mike Tyson was the greatest heavyweight of all time, will be met with the Muhammed Ali, Lennox Lewis, Evander Holyfield brigade. And to be honest, everyone’s entitled to their opinion – it’s just harmless debate. But choosing the best America’s Cup sailor of all time is not only a really hard task but a political minefield. It’s a hornet’s nest. As a writer, you can immediately lose swathes of regular readers. You nail yourself to this mast and expect the ship to sink.
So in the spirit of not shying away from an argument, I’m going to call it. Russell Coutts, in my opinion is the best America’s Cup sailor of the modern era. I can hear my huge Kiwi audience (thanks for tuning in) groaning. Cornflakes are being spat at laptops. “How dare he say that? That’s outrageous.” I know, I know…but I’m sticking to it. Coutts was mercurial. He had, and still has, an aura about him that the modern-day Cup competitors just can’t match. When Russell entered the room, you knew he was there and on the racecourse he was dynamite. Pitch-perfect. He was the real deal.
I grew up totally engrossed in John Bertrand’s book ‘Born to Win’ – if I’m honest, the 1983 Cup was just before my consciousness. It was in the newspapers but the enormity of it, I simply couldn’t contextualise. I was just too young. ‘Born to Win’ in the coming year or two after it was published, struck a cord. I still have it today and it’s possibly one of my most treasured possessions. Bertrand was just cool and in real life, he’s even cooler. A nicer, more genuine legend you couldn’t wish to meet. Never meet you heroes, they say, well with Bertrand they broke the mould. But as good as Coutts? I’m sticking with the Kiwi.
And then there’s Dennis Conner. He wrote the bible (No Excuse to Lose). He brought a will to win that set the standard. Between DC and Coutts, it’s the toughest call in my opinion. Coutts shaves it. Just. Big Bad Dennis, the San Diego draper who had none of the advantages but crashed and banged his way to America’s Cup glory, lost it and won it again. Pre-Coutts, he won ‘the greatest’ title hands-down for me every time. ‘Comeback’ was and still is a book that I return to time and time again. It’s a terrific read. And I can genuinely say that meeting DC was one of the highlights of my time in yachting journalism. He was larger than life but a conundrum of insecurity and inferiority wrapped up in the most competitive will to win that I have ever seen. Fascinating man.
And then we look at today’s gang. It’s a straight shoot-out between Pete Burling and Ben Ainslie in my book. Jimmy Spithill is interesting but he’s second division to the Kiwi and the Brit. Ainslie’s medal haul and Cup win as tactician with Oracle is right up there and the way he’s leading this Ineos team of Lions is remarkable. He’s two steps from Coutts status in my opinion. Burling, at 29 (or is he 30 now?), is on the fast-track to the top step but perhaps it’s a sign of the times but there isn’t the same Coutts/DC aura – perhaps that was just a different age or the rose-tinted spectacles just seeing it differently? I don’t think so. Burling is all-out the poster boy of the foiling/49er generation eclipsing the likes of Nathan Outeridge (who I can’t understand why he’s not in this Cup – what’s that all about?) and perhaps even Ben.
Maybe these guys will grow into that fear-inducing status. Of them all, Ben has the best shot. If he wins this it will be the move that pushes him into the stratosphere. I’m not sure that he does the politics well and whether the figurehead role suits him perfectly but there’s no denying the skill on the water. He’s undoubtably right at the top of all the leagues out there. In an Elvstrom-in-his-prime bracket. And that’s a lofty, rarefied place – about as remote as K2 in winter.
But Coutts shades it for me. I know the arguments about him leaving Team New Zealand and joining Bertarelli’s Swiss outfit – and for that, he will never be forgiven in some quarters back in New Zealand. And then jumping to the considerable dollar of Larry Ellison’s stable is to many, a shameless money grab too far but when viewed through the lens of ambition to sail the best and give yourself every chance of winning, I can see Coutts’ point of view. I would probably have done the same. You probably would too. Blind loyalty is rare in sportsmen. We admire it and celebrate when we see it but it’s rare. The game is different in reality to how we would like it to be played, or how we imagine it should be played on a jingoistic, nationalist basis.
Coutts had it all. He was a fearsome competitor. A brilliant sailor. A master political operator. A galvaniser on the water. A divider of opinion off. In my view, the greatest America’s Cup sailor of all time.
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