Pining for mavericks in modern-day sport is akin to whistling into a hurricane. Occasionally a boxer or a UCL fighter pops up with a few good cheap-shot lines but in general the fear of cancel culture, team management retribution, club sanction or stepping over the line keeps athletes, participants and owners on a cautious media line. As Cup watchers we remember those half-drunk podium rants of Dennis Conner revving up the Kiwis or Tom Blackaller winding up DC with fondness and go further back to Ted Turner days and the gloves were squarely off. It was a time of Muhammed Ali bestriding the world with rap poetry and smack talk selling a promotion for all he, and Don King, were worth. The public bought it and we loved how high the media bar was being set.
By the 1990’s sport was becoming professionalised and dominated by sponsorship requirements so athletes became, by necessity, duller. Formula 1 saw the rise of the dourly serious Ayrton Senna and those that followed took his media persona formula as a template. Footballers jettisoned (largely) the drinking culture exemplified by George Best and Paul Gascoigne to become clean-living athletes with a purpose whilst Jonny Wilkinson became the poster-child in the noughties for the dull-as-ditch-off-the-pitch persona but my goodness could he kick a ball. Metronomics requires dedication that you and I don’t have the personality traits for. As spectators, sport has became duller by design but standards have been raised immeasurably. Only the likes of Usain Bolt in modern times has a glint of personality shone through with sublime, God-given talent.
At the last America’s Cup it was a struggle to get anything other than stock answers from the players at the press conferences. Party-line, diplomatic patsies were trotted out about taking each day as it comes, concentrating on ourselves, back-slapping the team, thanking the bosses and reflections on the huge efforts being expended by all. Try as they might, the Kiwi media couldn’t crack the nut. The liveliest press conference came when the Italians fought their corner over holding the racing to schedule but it was a car crash of self interest that was excruciating to watch and embarrassing for the event. Jimmy Spithill was a bright spot of competitiveness wrapped up in a seething dislike of the media that was hard to disguise – but he was genuine and we liked that desperate honesty in the short bursts that he was allowed by the Prada press officers. But in the main the pressers were a dull watch that revealed precisely nothing other than a glimpse into modern-day sports heroes.
Today’s sailing pros view the Cup for the aberration that it is on the calendar. At best it’s a few months of unbelievable spotlight and attention but for the athletes there are so many moving parts. They are jockeys for billionaires, billboards for commerce, thankful for the opportunity and the pay cheque. On a wider lens, there’s far more at stake and the Cup is just a small, important perhaps yes, piece of their career puzzle. Blow it at the Cup and the lucrative maxi rides don’t happen. Sail GP doesn’t come knocking. Your national authority send you for compulsory media training and your Olympic slot is at risk. Be a maverick and pay the price.
Far easier is to take the path of causes. Hitch your personal brand to cleaning the ocean, beach health, vitality, equality, education, youth, diversity or any other worthy venture and you’re placing yourself into the realms of the untouchable away from the woke gangs waiting to topple you. Translated, this makes for dull mainstream timelines on social media and a projection of a togetherness and a purpose-driven athlete. It’s the same in corporate life – every company must have a purpose, its employees must feel engaged. It’s no longer good enough to be in it for the money, we all must have a social conscience and be purpose and values driven. Goodness me it’s dull.
So when Christiano Ronaldo removed two bottles of Coca Cola from in front of him at a press conference and implored the audience to drink water, $5 billion was knocked off the share price. Paul Pogba removes the Heineken bottle and it’s front page news. How long can Jimmy Spithill keep on endorsing Red Bull? That’s not going to work in the Woke Cup of 2024 surely?
But amidst my suspicion of how sport is traversing, there are two that stand out. I watched the interviews yesterday on New Zealand TV of Pete Burling and Blair Tuke tuning up for the Olympics in the 49er (they may as well just give them the medal now) and although Pistol Pete is the King of Metronome, Blair is actually the convincing one. As Founders of the Live Ocean Charitable Trust they have the perfect, future-proofed, unquestionable platform for the modern-day sportsmen that they are.
And they are brilliant ambassadors not only for the cause but also for their country and Team New Zealand. Russell and Brad they are not – they are even more savvy than those two and that’s saying something. You can’t help but be on their side. Despite desperately wanting to talk about the cause and the Olympics, naturally they were drawn to the Cup venue decisions and a straighter bat you couldn’t wish to be played. They understand the commercial realities, explained the issue in a way that anyone can appreciate and praised Grant Dalton, the boss, for his efforts whilst reaffirming their sporting ambition to defend again. They were one step removed and that’s a skill. You couldn’t argue with it. They are not playing politics no matter how far you push them. It’s straight talking. No nonsense and pretty impressive.
Burling and Tuke are fast challenging Ainslie with a palmares of 1 gold, 1 silver, 2 Cups and 9 world championships – stick another medal around their necks in Tokyo and perhaps one in Paris and it’s a bar-room debate about who is the modern-day Elvstrom. Tuke is the pin-up for New Zealand sailing and fast-forward a decade or two and it’s these two that will be leading the Cup charge from the shore. That’s frightening. They are in their practitioner cycle right now and acing it. Heaven help the Challengers when they are in charge. The Cup will be very different in 20 years’ time, unrecognisable from the 36th edition even at the 37th but by the 40th and onwards it will be in the mould of today’s stars – cause driven, no nonsense and highly competitive.
Some say the Cup is dead. I think that’s premature. When the baton passes down to today’s sailors and they assume the management roles, I think it’s going to be in rude health and a better event minus today’s baggage. Revolutionising the format now is the springboard to success for the future.
But don’t expect mavericks anytime soon. That ship has sailed. More’s the pity.