Kiwi Magic


Here's more evidence that in major sports, winning isn't the most important thing, it's the only thing. Dennis Conner will go down in yacht racing history as the only skipper to lose the America's Cup twice. No matter that he is also the only one to win it three times (plus a fourth at the helm). He's a loser, beaten at his own game by many of his old tactics -- and by a much nicer bunch of guys.

New Zealand's triumph in what many regard as the crowning event in world-class sailing may prove another turning point in the America's Cup's 144-year history.

The hallowed trophy has looked a little tarnished at times recently, but the sailing-mad Kiwis promise to give it a new sheen. Though their 5-0 drubbing of Mr. Conner's entry may have looked easy, it was international yacht racing at its best: a superbly designed boat with a well-trained, cohesive crew. Black Magic I was inherently faster than its U.S. rival, but its crew (which, significantly, helped design the Kiwi entry) was as good as they get. Mr. Conner and his highly skilled crew were outmatched, sailing an unfamiliar, borrowed boat.

So the cup goes Down Under again. This time it is to the island nation with a population two-thirds Maryland's -- and with perhaps the highest proportion of sailors in the world. It's the only international sailing trophy New Zealanders haven't won, and it has been compared to a fellow countryman's conquest of Mount Everest. Though the cup competition is usually viewed as one between nations, the national lines are blurred. The Black Magic crew was all-Kiwi, but its co-designer and some strategists were Americans.

The future of the America's Cup competition may be seen in the difference between Dennis Conner and Peter Blake, his New Zealand counterpart. Mr. Conner was the cynosure, the entrepreneur, who faded quickly into the background when it became clear his team would lose. Mr. Blake, already well established as a world-class sailor, kept out of the limelight until victory was his. During the finals Mr. Conner barely touched the wheel, while Mr. Blake was a deck ape grinding a winch.

To the Kiwis, competitive sailing is an art; to Dennis Conner it's the core of a business conglomerate. The Kiwis can't get around to defending the cup for five years because there are other, less glamorous but more challenging races in the meantime. It's a long wait, but the cup is in good hands.


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