Passing the Cup: The Meaning of the America's Cup at the Global Table. (World in Review)

By Smith, Nick | Harvard International Review, Spring 2002 | Go to article overview

Passing the Cup: The Meaning of the America's Cup at the Global Table. (World in Review)


Smith, Nick, Harvard International Review


The oldest sporting trophy in the world, the America's Cup, celebrated its sesquicentennial this past August in the Isle of Wight, where it was first wrested from the hands of the British by the ship America in 1851. Royalty and business tycoons joined sailing buffs to pay homage to the holy grail of the competitive sailing world. Meanwhile, 10 syndicates continued to train for the next round of challenger eliminations, which begins in October 2002 in the Haurakai Gulf off Auckland, New Zealand. While the powerful International America's Cup Class (IACC) boats may glide gracefully through the water, competitive sailing seems to lack the pizzazz of World Cup Soccer or the Six Nations Rugby Championship.

If to the typical ESPN viewer championship sailing is even less fun to watch than Test Cricket, and if the guest list for its birthday party reads like a who's who of the world's privileged, then why should anyone bother tuning in to watch the America's Cup? In other words, what is the America's Cup's broader significance?

Contested roughly every three years, the Cup represents the pinnacle of international sailing. In fierce one-on-one battles of speed, highly trained teams fight for national honor on the high seas. Originally baffled in wooden schooners, the America's Cup is now sailed in IACCs, extraordinarily expensive boats that designers push to the very limits of technology and stability. They are most often recognized for their fantastic failures, when sailors are photographed leaping from a collapsing boat just moments before it plummets to the ocean floor. They are, however, the key to success in a winner-take-all event. They represent tens of billions of US dollars in investment, research, and development, and the finished product combines much of the world's most cutting-edge technology. This element of technological competition makes the Cup much more than a battle for national glory between Lacoste-sporting yuppies. The America's Cup has become a global benchmark of technological progress and prowess--a dramatic, watery stage for nations to prove their supremacy. As such, it both reflects the current structure of the world and foretells future trends.

America the Beautiful

From the very start, the Cup has been infused with overtones of technological accomplishment. The America herself was commissioned by New York Yacht Club (NYYC) Commodore John Cox Stevens to be faster "than any vessel in the United States brought to compete with her." This ship, drastically different from the traditional designs of the day, was intended to represent the pinnacle of Yankee shipbuilding at the 1851 Great Exhibition in London. US sailors hoped to prove their nautical superiority in British waters, where the Royal Navy claimed to rule the waves and British merchants stood foremost in oceanic trade. The America did not disappoint, striking at the heart of British self-confidence. After a resounding defeat for Britain, the London Merchant wrote that the US win foretold a change in the world order: "The empire of the seas must before long be ceded to America; its persevering enterprise, its great commerce, are certain to secure this prize; nor will England be in a condition to dispute it with her. A merica, as mistress of the ocean, must overstride the civilized world." Fresh from their triumph, the New York sailors also recognized the importance of technological accomplishment to their win. According to an October 3,1851, transcript of the NYYC victory banquet, the final and most warmly received toast was to the men who built the ship: "The mechanics and artisans employed in the construction and outfit of the yacht America--by their science, skill and taste, they have added honor to their country."

These "mechanics and artisans" helped fulfill the London Merchant's prophecy. US clipper ships revolutionized world trade and commerce, and they gave the still-fledgling United States an edge against its imperialist competitors in the China trade.

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