I am sitting with Jimmy Spithill, and I am giddy. I ask, "Who do you race for? Larry Ellison, Oracle Team USA, or San Francisco?" I have managed to corral Spithill, the skipper for Oracle Team USA, at a bar on Union Street, and we have headed to the back of the room to talk about the upcoming races.
Oracle is the "American" boat in the America's Cup. I put quotation marks around the "American" in that phrase because there are more Americans on the Swedish team than there are on the American team. Spithill is Australian. As is the CEO of Oracle, Russell Coutts. There are New Zealanders on the team. There are Italians on the team. When I go to have lunch at their base, we eat Mexican food. Then they slap the American flag up on top of their 13-story tall wing mast over the gigantic "Oracle" logo. It's one of the things that make people tilt their heads and make squinty faces when you talk to them about the different syndicates in this year's Cup. It's a little hard to figure out who is playing for which team, let alone which country.
He thought about my question for a moment and then answered. "Well first of all you race for yourself. And then for my team mates, and Larry is my teammate. But we also have that responsibility to San Francisco and the United States. We could hear the cheering in the World Series [sailing races] and it's hard to value that and what it means. And I am really proud to be representing America. My wife is American and my two sons are American, and Australians have this love affair with the Americans. It goes back to you bailing us out in the wars. You were there to look out for us, and growing up with my father and his mates they were in love with America because they helped us out. So for me it is an honor be part of this and I love it here."
Aside from the fact that I have no idea what wars he's talking about, I was on to the subject of why Americans should rally behind a bunch of gregarious mercenaries with accents who stare suspiciously at our toilets when the water goes the wrong way around when flushed. It's positively un-American, right? It's not like football, where we have been sucked in somehow and now treat the draft like it's Opening Day, the Super Bowl, and the Second Coming all wrapped into one. We then spend months clogging up comments sections and by the time someone starts for the 49ers, we are behind them because we know them dammit. Well, at least we feel like we know them.
All this unlike the aforementioned foreigners sailing under a corporate banner. Spithill laughs at this perspective, and gently points to the Giants. Or as we call them, YOUR San Francisco Giants. Except the Panda is from Venezuela. And Romo is from Mexico. In fact, the whole lot of them are from parts elsewhere on the map. Come to think of it, a lot of those 49ers were drafted by other teams. Good Lord, some of them even played for our sworn enemies. And then Spithill has to throw this in: What is more important, that we root for people who are from here, or for people who are here because they want to be rooted for?
But wait, there is still that Larry Issue. To Spithill and his teammates, he may indeed be just another part of the team, although I seriously doubt that. There is no other sport where the owner is so connected to the team as the America's Cup. Perhaps it's inevitable given the span of time embraced by the event, the single longest running perpetual sports trophy in the world. An event filled with not just names, but Big Names. Jerry Jones may proudly stroll through Texas Stadium, and George Steinbrenner may get cameos on Seinfeld, but here we are talking Vanderbilt. T.O.M. Sopwith. Thomas Lipton.
Paul Cayard is a Bay Area native and the CEO of Artemis Racing, the Swedish syndicate. (See how confusing this is?) I asked him why people fixate on the owners so much in the America's Cup. "I think that this is because Paul Cayard and Russell Coutts, as famous as we are, we are not household names like an Alex Smith or Kaepernick or Steve Young or Joe Montana; so the media, the public crave names and famous people," said Cayard. "Ellison is much more well known than the athletes are."
In a way, it really is an insult to the sailors who race in The Cup to dismiss them and The Cup as a billionaire's vanity project. Most players on the 49ers make more than the entire crew of a boat in The Cup combined. And yet they have to wake up each morning and hear about how they are a bunch of rich kids playing in a rich man's sport. I wonder if these men who have chosen this path will ever become as famous as their benefactors, or to one day be as famous as Montana or a Panda.
We get up from our barstools and head out into a beautiful San Francisco night. Right before we make it out, Spithill is stopped by a group of ladies who want their pictures taken with him. "You're with Oracle!" they squeal in pleasure, and then they all gather around while Jimmy looks slightly embarrassed. As we finally pull away and head for the door, one yells after him "I hope you win it for us."
It occurs to me that there's something very "American" about embracing the best of the best, no matter what country they hail from. Regardless whether The Cup came to us via Larry Ellison's massive bank account and inscrutable ego, it is here in our Fair City. And in a weird way, here at the far end of a nation built by outcasts, Oracle's boat full of international sailors may just turn out to be the most American team after all.
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