Ever since a group of wealthy New Yorkers named their yacht America and crossed the Atlantic to humble the British, the America's Cup has been a competition steeped in national pride.
In an event filled with ambiguities, one of the clearest injunctions of the original Deed of Gift is that it should be "a friendly contest between foreign countries".
Yet, the Cup community is now seriously divided over how nationality should be treated in the future. Pharmaceuticals billionaire Ernesto Bertarelli, who is making his Cup debut with the powerful Alinghi team, has made it clear that he wants the nationality rule relaxed, if not abolished.
Team New Zealand, on the other hand, takes a traditional approach and, if anything, would like to see the nationality requirement strengthened.
With these two teams pitted against each other for the America's Cup starting on February 15, the whole character of the event hangs in the balance. Whichever team wins is in a powerful position to determine the future, so more than just victory on the water is at stake.
Says noted Cup historian, New York-based John Rousmaniere: "I am absolutely certain that patriotism is crucial to the ongoing success of the America's Cup, along with its spectacle and the opportunity for head-to-head challenge that it offers owners and sailors. Most owners, sailors, and followers care deeply about national identity - and I believe will care even more as other aspects of life become globalized.
"I believe each boat should have a clear national identity that is far more than the flag it flies. A formula can be worked out easily - say a certain proportion of the crew or afterguard (at least 50%) must have passports. In addition, the boat must be built in its flag nation and designed by a design team that is largely comprised of nationals, though perhaps not on a passport basis."
Olin Stephens, doyen of America's Cup designers, takes a similar view. "I think strict nationality requirements would solve, or at least ease, several recent difficulties related to transferring information,"
he says in reference to the allegations of illegal possession of design information that dogged the current regatta.
"It would mean carrying out the intention of the original donor,"
adds Stephens, "and I think it is one subject on which a majority of observers agree. It would surely reduce the incentive for the richest groups to bid up the market across borders."
This more or less squares with Team New Zealand's view that the nationality issue should be made clearer and more enforceable, with passports, rather than residency formulae, as the determining factor.
Louis Vuitton media maestro and long-time Cup aficionado Bruno Troublé agrees nationality is important, but would restrict it to the actual racing crew. He says the majority of the crew should be passport holders, with an agreed number, three or four, able to be recruited from anywhere.
Ernesto Bertarelli presents a counter view. In an interview shortly after he began building his multinational team, Bertarelli said he respected the history and traditions of the America's Cup, but was selective about those he chose to admire. "There are 13 nationalities on our team (the number has since grown to 15),"
he declared, "and I believe that is the way our sport should go."
A similar approach came from the OneWorld syndicate, also a first time team backed by extremely wealthy individuals, telecommunications mogul Craig McCaw and Microsoft co-founder
Paul Allen. As the name implies, OneWorld took a firmly global approach and multi-national flags blossomed from its compound roof, one for each nationality represented in the team.
Referring to the nationality requirements laid down in the Deed of Gift, Bertarelli argued: "Have we not moved on? Who would have thought 150 years ago that yachts would travel by air to come and sail in a regatta? Sailing should evolve at the same speed and with the same dynamics as other sports."
The airfreight analogy is really a false argument, as is the notion that because technology has changed, so should the core values of the America's Cup. The America's Cup was always about leading edge technology. The America was a superior yacht in its day and ever since the contest has been about state-of-the-art design and technology.
The fact that wooden yachts with canvas sails have been discarded does not mean that everything about the America's Cup that is old should also be discarded. On the contrary, the greatest values attached to the Cup are about heritage and tradition, the products of age.
Ironically, for all that Alinghi proclaims itself international, its progress through the Louis Vuitton Cup has been matched by growing symbols of nationalism. At the unveiling ceremony, for example, the keel skirts were removed to the strains of Alpine horns. A black and white cow was painted on the keel strut and bulb. The flavour was distinctly Swiss.
Cows and Alpine horns have since flourished around the syndicate. When Alinghi won the Louis Vuitton Cup, supporters waved a forest of miniature Swiss flags, supplied by the syndicate.
Mixed messages are, therefore, coming from Alinghi. Cosmopolitan laissez faire is competing with distinctly national symbols. But Swiss journalist Mathieu Truffer said although interest in the Cup was rising in Switzerland, the Alinghi challenge was seen largely as a private venture. "There will never be a victory parade in Geneva with thousands of people cheering the Cup,"
he wrote. "It will never happen."
To be fair, mixed motives are not new to the America's Cup. The New Yorkers who built America in 1851 wanted to demonstrate the superiority of New World technology over Old World ideas, certainly -- national pride spiced with post-colonial zeal. But, they also were keen sportsmen out for some action, the odd wager and sheer adventure.
Those arguing for a relaxation of the nationality requirements correctly point out that many syndicates throughout the America's Cup - including the America - had non-nationals in the crew. John Rousmaniere: "I think nationality is determined less by numbers than by the identity of the boat's leaders. That was the case in the days of the J-Boats. Three nationals in the afterguard mean far more in the eye of the public, the history and the Deed of Gift than nine non-nationals in the sail-handling crew."
There is little doubt that, mixed in with other motivations like social ambition, commercial interest and unbridled ego, the overwhelming character of America's Cup regattas has been of national teams competing.
The Schooner America © Beken of Cowes
Irish Tea baron Sir Thomas Lipton's yachts were all named Shamrock. Ballpoint pen entrepreneur Baron Marcel Bich called his yachts France, property billionaire Alan Bond campaigned yachts called Australia. When Australia II broke the 132 winning streak of the New York Yacht Club, the campaign created new icons with boxing kangaroos and Men at Work music blaring, We are the men from Downunder …
As Australians partied into the night, Prime Minister Bob Hawke gave the nation a day off, declaring, "Any boss who sacks an employee for not turning up to work tomorrow is a bum."
Given the nationalistic nature of the Australia II campaign, it is somewhat surprising to find Bond now espousing a more casual opinion on the question. "I think we have to accept that it is an open event for the best people to sail on the best boats available," he said in Auckland recently. "I believe sportsmen should be recognised for their own ability wherever the opportunity arises, and whilst it is a national challenge it shouldn't be limited as such."
Two men closely associated with the Bond period take a totally opposite view. Dennis Conner wears his patriotism on his sleeve with a huge US flag fluttering over his base, an all-American sailing crew and yachts called Stars & Stripes. Conner, who was given a ticker-tape parade and a White House audience after reclaiming the Cup in 1987, is unashamedly old fashioned about these things. "I think it would be nice to see a team that really truly represented your country as opposed to 15 different countries out of 16 people,"
And, Sir Michael Fay, whose three New Zealand challenges were initially inspired by Australia's success in 1983, argues passionately for nationalism's place in the event. "No disrespect for any other Kiwis sailing for other teams in the regatta, but New Zealanders are one hundred and fifty percent behind Team New Zealand and all of us will be out there cheering for Dean Barker and Team New Zealand this time,"
This touches on an important element of the debate. When private ambition coincides with public passion, a powerful force is generated. Without public passion it is difficult to conceive of the America's Cup flourishing.
And public passion comes from cheering for your home team. It is hard to imagine hordes of Italians, New Zealanders, Australians or Americans sitting up half the night to follow America's Cup sailing on the opposite end of the earth if all that was at stake was the Microsoft boat up against the General Motors boat.
Without the benefit of a stadium atmosphere, sailing in general struggles to excite public attention. Yet, despite its technical and legalistic complexity, the America's Cup does just that. Strip away the national element, though, and the hundreds of thousands of cheering fans that lined the streets for victory parades in Sydney, Auckland and New York, would melt away.
Kings and queens, presidents and prime ministers, politicians and potentates have all been drawn into the Cup arena because of its unique heritage and tradition. In doing so, they have added to its prestige and the special allure that arouses such huge endeavours to capture it.
Political propriety would keep most of them away if the Cup was to become a purely commercial event, devoid of national symbolism.
For more than a century and a half, the America's Cup has had the ability to excite national passions and that, in turn, has allowed small countries to compete with pride and sometimes distinction against much larger nations. New Zealand is a strong case in point.
Strip that away and it will become a plaything for extremely wealthy individuals, or large corporations only. And, the event will surely be the poorer for that.