On balance, sailing’s reaction to the murderous, illegal events unfolding in Ukraine at the hands of a dull, deaf, unhinged kleptocrat has been measured and classy. Behind the scenes it took some prompting from the senior voices in the sport to get action but we got there eventually. World Sailing, under hopefully the last ever Chinese president, wafted like a feather in the wind waiting for IOC direction. When it came, the missives felt confused at the point of creation and to the point of incredulity but a re-statement drafted by grown-ups clarified the bodies’ tenuous opening position. And the various national bodies did their bit, treading along the line of not wishing to throw the baby out with the bathwater whilst the class organisations themselves did a terrific job in recognising their position and politely excluding participation from Russian and Belarus competitors for the foreseeable.
With little fanfare, and very much in the gentleman spirit, the grandest clubs on the planet drafted up their own internal policies behind closed doors and no statement is required. Actions will continue to speak far louder than words should competitors from the pariah states deign to enter – to which I think that unlikely. Around the world, the disgusting largesse caused when state assets fall into the hands of individuals is being seized and stripped away. Not fast enough for many but it’s very safe to say that the party is over for the in-yer-face brigade and the chattels of excess, the superyachts, the mega-maxis, perhaps even the bespoked money-no-object one-designs will lie in mothballs, sealed off by pernicious and relentless red tape for a long time to come.
The top end of sailing and boating will suffer, of that there’s no question. Build slots will be popping up at the great yards of glamour, and all down the chain there will be a re-calibration of the balance sheets. Sailors on a day-wage will be courting a different breed of millionaire and billionaire. Bargains of the fire-sale variety will be available to those with the requisite folding-stuff and desire but calling the bottom of this market still has a way to run. Call it the end of a business-cycle if you like but my sense is that this could last decades – those sanctions aren’t going to be lifted anytime soon and the world, let alone our sport, had better brace itself for the knock-on effects.
Amidst this hellish backdrop, the relatively insignificant matter of the America’s Cup venue is being played out and you have to think that the whole game, the whole playing field, the entire rules of engagement, has changed. How can you not? I find it unbelievable and unpalatable to think that anyone in Europe is seriously around the table right now flashing the required money to secure the event. Overnight, oil spiked to levels last seen in 2013 and has every chance of going stratospheric in the coming weeks (look at the futures market) and that leaves only one region with the aces and the bare-faced opportunism that can possibly fund the regatta in its planned format.
But come back to how sailing has responded to the war and then transport yourself to March 31st and an announcement that the Cup will be in Jeddah or Abu Dhabi. What would be the reaction in these highly reactionary times? The America’s Cup would skirt dangerously with cancel culture. The Americans would not be happy. The Brits would be uncomfortable. The Italians would be outraged. The Swiss may well not be neutral.
The Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron would be facing mutiny and its officers may as well do the honourable thing. Support would ebb away from the Cup faster than an Oligarch fleeing Monaco. It’s dangerous times to be doing an OE on the Cup and thinking that Europe or the Middle East are the answer. If so, what the hell was the question again? Right now the only palatable options if we are to ever get this event away is to either ice the decision due to unforeseen geopolitical issues (and we’d all understand that) or to corral the challengers and the defenders, pool finances, get real and stick the whole shebang in the relative safety of New Zealand waters.
Nobody’s going to thank me for my views but come on, this whole charade has to be called for what it is. I’m comfortable saying what others won’t but are all thinking. The Cup, meaningful to us all as it is but irrelevant in the sports world, is collateral damage for the time being in a global sense. The protagonists and those with the vision were doing the right thing right up until the world changed. The unknown unknowns reared their ugly head and a re-calibration of expectation and a sense of realism now needs to be injected into those that still think there’s a glimmer of hope for a Cup in 2024.
And so what if the decision was delayed? We’re living in extraordinary times, hour by hour, and watching untold misery and desperation unfold before our eyes. Is that the backdrop for billionaires and corporates to go spending hundreds of millions of dollars to race carbon fibre flying machines in a machismo contest? I fear not. In fact, I could actually foresee teams pulling out. I could see sailors voting with their feet in the coming weeks as families come first. I could see an implosion of will for the whole event.
As it stands today, the reality is New Zealand or nothing. That’s the bare, harsh facts and however it’s done, whatever the format, sailing needs to wake up and get real. That, or ice the decision to the end of 2022 and see how the world looks then.
Strange times. Difficult times. Sailing must do the right thing. It has done so (eventually) in the current crisis. It will do it again. It always does. I have every faith.