If anything turns criticism into praise and vice versa, it’s the America’s Cup.
Weirdly, this strangest of events - the oldest sporting trophy in the world - lures out even the most disinterested of people and turns them into rabid fans.
Some sort of primal instinct kicks in and otherwise normal folk suddenly start talking about wind shifts and think in terms of knots rather than kilometres per hour. Most have never hoisted a sail in their life.
But somehow, a “sloppy jibe” becomes an acceptable thing to say around the house. We wince at the prospect of foul air and Jimmy’s smug face visits us in our sleep.
I haven’t been immune to this phenomenon, but I’m always cautious about that old phrase ‘a little knowledge is a dangerous thing’.
The perfect quote
As someone who knows a little bit about a lot of things and not very much about most things, I thought I had better check that this is a suitable phrase to use.
And it turns out the expression is ‘a little learning is a dangerous thing’ and it comes from Alexander Pope in the early 18th century in a collection of poems called An Essay on Criticism.
This book is a better read than you might imagine from the title, and this particular poem goes like this:
A little learning is a dangerous thing;
drink deep, or taste not the Pierian Spring:
there shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,
And drinking largely sobers us again.
The Pierian Spring is a mythological source of knowledge of art and science, stemming from Greek mythology. So, it’s actually the perfect quote for the situation. Because this sport is very much a love-hate thing for Kiwis, especially at this elite level.
It’s the sport of the rich and privileged - the snooty snobs.
By now, someone has snorted Veuve Clicquot onto their poop deck. But relax, slide those cucumber slices back over the eyes, and allow me to apply some Alexander Pope.
Certainly you need to have a lot of money to win the America’s Cup.
Just to host this year’s event and spruce up the Auckland waterfront, taxpayers have shelled out $136.5 million.
A big tourism windfall was expected to pay this back in taxes and extra revenue for businesses, but with the international borders closed, the payback is unlikely to be as big as expected.
There will be some marketing exposure for the country and the boat building industry gets another feather in the hat, although it’s hard to see there being a massive demand for 75-foot foiling yachts.
Only $5 million of taxpayer money went to Team New Zealand’s campaign, which is peanuts compared to the approximately $100 million which it funded through other sponsors and sources. Even that is only half that of some of its competitors. Most commercial businesses find it hard to justify spending so much for the limited exposure opportunities, so it is often down to billionaires to fund campaigns for their own satisfaction.
For this reason, we loathe the concept of the cup right up until it actually happens and then we revel in success or writhe in failure.
Our collective reputation is on the line. The desire to be more innovative, smarter, faster and better is what drives our psyche.
Peter the Great
But to put it all into perspective, you need to connect the dots between the elite level of sailing and the grass roots. You don’t need a better example of that than Team New Zealand’s skipper Peter Burling - Tauranga born and bred.
Peter started sailing around Welcome Bay in a little optimist called Jelly Tip when he was just six-years-old.
And you can actually pick up a little optimist on a trailer for under $1000.
Once you add in the cost of a wetsuit and a life jacket, it’s probably starting to get a bit pricey for some but not nearly as much as something like motorcross, which enjoys a far less elitist reputation.
Our mixed feelings over the America’s Cup are also seated in our deep association with the sea.
Our islands in the middle of a vast ocean owe its human history to the wind in the sails.
We all came here for a better life, for freedom and because it was worth the challenge.
So it’s no wonder a boat that flies captured our imagination so much.
When the excitement wears off and the boring business of the next challenge begins, remember that anyone can set their sights on the horizon and set sail. You don’t have to be a billionaire.