WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — Disappointed New Zealanders made their way slowly to work on Thursday morning after a week-long national vigil ended with Team New Zealand’s loss to Oracle Team USA in the deciding race for sailing’s America’s Cup.
From the commanding position of an 8-1 lead, needing just one more win to claim the Cup for the third time, Team New Zealand lost 9-8 after Team USA rallied to win eight consecutive races including Thursday’s 19th race in the longest regatta in Cup history.
For the past seven days, Kiwis have gathered around televisions at yacht clubs, in bars and cafes, at work, school or in their homes hoping to witness the triumphant climax of New Zealand’s America’s Cup campaign.
Instead, they saw Team New Zealand’s margin steadily eroded by a resurgent Team USA.
At Auckland’s Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron, the team’s official yacht club which would have housed the America’s Cup if it came back to New Zealand, crowds dropped away as the week progressed and as hopes of a New Zealand win receded.
As Team USA crossed the finish line Wednesday afternoon on San Francisco Bay to retain the America’s Cup for the Golden Gate Yacht Club, squadron members in Auckland politely applauded the Americans, then rose to their feet to salute Team New Zealand.
Squadron vice-commodore Andy Anderson said New Zealanders could still take heart from the fact the American team was headed by a New Zealander, former Team New Zealand boss Russell Coutts, and that the Oracle boat was built in New Zealand.
“I think sailing was the winner on the day. It’s been a fantastic spectacle,” Anderson told National Radio. “New Zealand didn’t have the legs at the end of it.
“Speed’s everything and you’d have to say the might put in behind the Oracle team and their professionalism means they’ve done a fantastic job and we wish them all the best,” he added.
Anderson said it was an impressive feat for Team USA to win eight consecutive races.
“To win eight in a row is pretty impressive. We had a little bit of bad luck at times but at the end of the day they’ve done a great job, they’re both great teams. Team New Zealand has done a fantastic job getting this far and there’s only a few seconds in it.”
Anderson said New Zealanders should not be bitter at Team New Zealand, its head Grant Dalton and skipper Dean Barker, perhaps anticipating a public backlash at one of the worst form reversals in the history of world sport.
“They’ve done an amazing job,” he said. “It’s been a long campaign, several years getting to this point and you’d have to say all credit to Team New Zealand, well done.”
Anderson also touched on the question, which has increasingly been asked in recent days, about whether Team New Zealand might ever challenge for the Cup again. While Team USA had the support of software billionaire Larry Ellison, the New Zealand team relied on a handful of sponsors and the financial support of Kiwi taxpayers.
“I think it’s a very big task (to challenge again),” he said. “We’ll certainly need the sponsors and people to back it who are real believers.
“But there have been a lot of those behind this campaign and will they be back next time? Who knows? We’d certainly like to be back in there for another challenge, for the Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron to be challenging again. But there’s a lot of water to go under the bridge, as they say.”
The question of public funding for a future challenge is already controversial. The New Zealand government contributed $40 million of taxpayer money to team New Zealand, following an initial $36 million contribution in 2008.
An online poll conducted by the New Zealand Herald newspaper while New Zealand still led Team USA in the finals series showed 36 percent of respondents believed the government should make another major contribution to Team New Zealand and a further 22 percent said the contribution should be increased.
But when the teams were locked together at 8-8 before Thursday’s race 55 percent of respondents opposed further government funding and only 32 percent supported continued taxpayer assistance.
Spirits, which were high a week ago when New Zealand stood on the brink of victory, and when television audiences touched almost one million in a nation of 4.5 million, ebbed with each race and crowds at communal viewing points dwindled along with hope.
By Thursday’s final race, few New Zealanders sincerely believed Team New Zealand could stop Team USA’s comeback. The state betting agency had installed Team USA as its firm favorite to win the Cup and Kiwis no longer spoke of the economic benefits that might come from a Cup victory.
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