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Oracle to Be Banned from the AC?

It could happen.

Bob Fisher, one of the world’s most respected yachting journalists declared, “I would have thought Oracle would have the common decency to withdraw [from the America’s Cup]."

Oracle Team USA’s AC45s were illegally altered. The question now is, who knew what and when?

© 2013 Guilain Grenier / Oracle Team USA

When measuring the AC45s in late July for the upcoming Red Bull Youth Championship that is to start on September 1, measurers discovered something wrong. Three of the 12 AC45s, which are the strict one-designs that were used in the America’s Cup World Series events in 2012 and 2013, had been illegally modified. Curiously, all three of the catamarans had been prepared by Oracle Team USA, which went on to win the World Series in San Francisco. Two of the three cats were raced by Oracle, and one was prepared for Ben Ainslie of Great Britain, who was competing in the Olympics at the time the boats were being prepared.

The modification was the addition of about five pounds of ballast, in the form of slurry or lead shot, to the kingpost, which is the forward dolphin striker. In reporting their findings, the Measurement Committee concluded, “the modifications appeared to be intentional efforts to circumvent the AC45 class rule and are therefore serious in nature.”

One would have thought the measurers first responsibility would have been to take evidence of the illegal modifications to their boss, Regatta Director Iain Murray. Inexplicably they first went to the Oracle team, then they went to Murray. A week later, Coutts issued an undisclosed statement to the International Jury. In another inexplicable move, Murray then requested a gag order on the part of everyone involved. Don’t you love transparency in sport?

On August 8, Jury Notice 096 was released, which included emails from Ben Ainslie and Oracle’s Richard Slater, withdrawing their boats from the last four World Series regattas. Ainslie denied any knowledge of the illegal modifications and put the blame directly on Oracle. For his part, Coutts said that neither he nor any of the skippers or sailors on the AC45s had any knowledge of the illegal modifications.

Coutts, presenting himself as the noble guardian of fair play, released a perhaps too-cleverly worded statement on behalf of Oracle, one that has made us vow to never buy a used car from him. The statement said that following in “an internal investigation led by CEO Russell Coutts” it was determined that “the yachts were modified without the permission of the Measurement Committee . . .”

Does anyone else think that Coutts had an obligation to mention that there never would have been an Oracle investigation had the measurers not found the illegal modifications?

Does anyone else see the gaping difference between the Oracle statement saying the yachts were modified “without permission” of the Measurement Committee and the fact that the Measurement Committee could never have given permission for them because the modifications were illegal?

We were also struck by the fact that Coutts didn’t identify which team members made the modifications, and have them explain to the press why they made them and why they did so without telling Coutts or any of the skippers or crew members. After all, we think the sailing audience would understand, as it’s common knowledge that lower-level members of America’s Cup teams are allowed, if not encouraged, to make whimsical modifications to the America’s Cup boats whenever it strikes their fancy.

If, as Coutts claims, the modifications had no impact on the performance of the boats, we also have to wonder why Oracle retroactively withdrew from the World Series events — as opposed to either asking the other teams or the International Jury to decide if it was something they should do. Withdrawing makes it seem as though they had something to feel significantly guilty about.

There is disagreement as to whether or not the modifications could have helped the Oracle team’s performance. Some have said the cats could benefit from added weight forward in light winds. Others, such as the respected America’s Cup vet and naval architect Murray, suggest they would have had no benefit. Another possible explanation is that the weight was added to keep the boats at the necessary displacement. If this was the case, the weight was added in an area where it was not permitted.

Barclay and Murray faced an unhappy press corps, that pressed the pair for honest answers.

© 2013 OneNews

Following the disclosures, there was a lightly-attended but gruesome press conference on the matter, with Murray and America’s Cup CEO Stephen Barclay on the podium. Bob Fisher, longtime and highly respected yachting and America’s Cup journalist, was blunt. Microphone in hand, he firmly declared, “There has been cheating going on. I won’t use any other word because it is obviously cheating.” And he demanded an explanation from Barclay and Murray, the latter looking as though he hadn’t slept in a week. They said the matter was being investigated. An Italian journalist informed the panel that officials in Venice and Naples were thinking about suing the America’s Cup because the World Series events held there had been “a fake.” Tom Fitzgerald of the San Francisco Chronicle had the temerity to ask Barclay if it was determined that there had been cheating, should Larry Ellison be "banned from the competition." Interesting press conference snippets can be found here.

Among the competitors, Emirates Team New Zealand head Grand Dalton, a longtime adversary of fellow Kiwi Russell Coutts, also used the word “cheating.” Dalton said, “This is as bad as it gets.” If the modifications were for a competitive advantage as opposed to some kind of mistake, we would agree with Dalton’s evaluation. The entire concept of fair play in yacht racing is based on the honesty and integrity of the participants.

The matter is now in the hands of the International Jury, which is currently conducting its own investigation. Under the Racing Rules of Sailing (America’s Cup version) Rule 69 (Allegations of Gross Misconduct) and America’s Cup Protocol Article 60 (Protecting the Reputation of the America’s Cup), the Jury could give Oracle the boot. There is precedent for such an action in the Admiral’s Cup when it was a top-flight international competition. In that case, even the whistleblowers were banned from racing for a period of time. Whether it would happen to the host of the the 34th America’s Cup is another thing.

We don’t want anybody to get the wrong impression. As flawed as it’s been, we’ve enjoyed the America’s Cup competition thus far, as well as the AC World Series, and we’re happy about the sailing buzz they’ve brought to the Bay. Also, based on the new gizmo you can attach to a Laser without tools to make it capable of foiling, there actually has been some trickle down. Nonetheless, we have the following questions for you:

Do you think Oracle’s illegal modifications were the result of an attempt to cheat, or an honest mistake made by lower-level people who didn’t know any better and who weren’t properly supervised?

Do you believe Russell Coutts’ claim that neither he nor any of the people actually sailing on the 45s knew anything about the modifications, and would you buy a used car from him?

If you think Oracle cheated, what punishment do you believe would be appropriate for whom? Email us here

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