Competitive sport at every level and in every discipline has the ability to thrill and frustrate in equal measure. Professional sports carry weights of expectation heaped upon them by fans and revved up by the media. The higher you go, the greater the expectation and the unreasonable demand of victory is ramped to intolerable levels whilst journalism does its best to mirror mood and shine an intense beam into the individual or team.
In our sport, the America’s Cup is the apex of the game. Nothing comes even remotely close in sailing despite brilliant events all the way down the calendar. It’s intense, it’s special and it matters. Every nuance of the boats is documented, every personality examined, every quote analysed by some of the sharpest pens and docu-makers of any sport. There’s an electricity in the air around the Cup and it competes with the very best sports dramas on the planet.
But this past weekend of global sport was something else. Novak Djokovic careering towards the calendar slam with his sixth Wimbledon title. Mark Cavendish equalling the greatest bike rider of all time, Eddie Merckx, notching up his thirty-fourth Tour de France stage win. And Italy out-foxing a youthful England football team with a masterclass display of adaptability borne from long experience. Valuable lessons were learned at Wembley but what ties the successes and underlines the victories at Wimbledon, the Tour de France and the European Championships is that experience matters when it really matters.
In sailing’s pinnacle we see it time and again. There’s almost a moment when it’s your time to win. The stars align fusing design with an unbelievable team performing on auto-pilot almost. In recent times you look back at Australia II in 1983, Stars & Stripes in 1987, Black Magic in 1995, Alinghi in 2003, Oracle in 2013 and Team New Zealand in 2021. All outstanding teams that when you look back with hindsight, you realise that their win was just obvious. It was written in the stars and all the clues were hidden right there in plain sight.
Looking back at the last edition from a British perspective, it was a filler regatta. From utter embarrassment in the Christmas Regatta, the team got it together as a weather window played into Britannia’s strengths but by the final of the real-thing, the design was proven agricultural and brutally exposed. The detailing was poor. The sailors had gold medals aplenty but one hand tied behind their back and miracles rarely happen.
However from that utterly deflating experience, lessons as valuable as a Wembley penalty shoot-out were learned and the bitter taste of defeat will make for a better Challenge, and in my eyes a winning Challenge, next time. Many are scratching up Team Ineos as the favourites now with a fully-loaded wallet and the Challenger of Record status equalling insider-knowledge. No wonder the Italians and the Americans are furious at the interminable delay in venue and protocol announcements. Valuable time is being lost, the clock is ticking faster and the perception is of gaps appearing like an echelon in cycling.
The ‘Great Game’ like many other crucible professional sports is brutal. And it’s desperately unfair to the also-rans. Enough to cause a billionaire’s hissy-fit whilst others with the means sit on the sidelines peering into this curious nautical aberration realising that the barrier to entry is just too high.
Jim Ratcliffe paid his entry-fee in the last Cup and luckily enough didn’t get frightened off in the process. He doubled-down at just the right time and timing has been a hallmark of his business career where calculated risk in buying undervalued assets is the name of the game. He came into the Cup at a time where the money was flowing out. The Defender is a wounded beast, the Challenger teams are frustrated and the dice are loaded in his favour. He has a team with experience now, a Cup winning tactician, the best of a golden generation, steering and the ability to bankroll a winning outfit. It’s a tantalising prospect and the bookies will give short odds these days on a British win.
Whilst the streets were empty last night as a nation held its collective breath and willed on the windbag kicking England team as they suffered their character-building schooling on their way to the World Cup in Qatar in 2022, the sporting link between success and failure being experience couldn’t be more apt.
You have to suffer inglorious defeat to build the resilience to ultimate glory and you have to appreciate and learn the fine margins that competitive sport requires at the very highest level. Ben Ainslie’s paid his dues at the Cup now and the coming campaign is squarely in the ‘no excuse to lose’ mantra. It feels like Britain’s time in the Cup is fast approaching.
Good things come to those that wait. And whilst English football bemoans 55 years of hurt, for us sailing fans we’re up to 170 years and counting. It has to happen now, doesn’t it?