Tarnish on the America's Cup

`TRAVESTY of justice!'' That's what some are calling the court ruling that sent the America's Cup, sailing's foremost trophy, to New Zealand. But the real mockery of fairness was in the events leading up to the San Diego Yacht Club's defense of the cup last year. After winning the America's Cup from Australia in 1987, the San Diego club was called upon to defend it just a year later. Ordinarily the regattas are held every three or four years, but a New Zealand team, using a technicality in the deed that governs challenges, dropped the gauntlet.

Perhaps feeling put upon - especially when the Kiwis unveiled a boat of dubious design - the American team put to sea in a catamaran. The light, twin-hulled boat glided easily to victory.

Now a judge in New York (the state that administers the deed) has ruled that the defenders violated the spirit, if not the letter, of the charter. Most lovers of sport can only concur, though recognizing fault on both sides.

Can this gentlemanly sport, with its blue-blood Newport aura, really have come to this? The tawdry episode, with its hair-splitting legalisms and sharp practices culminating in litigation, is symptomatic of sport in the '80s. And like so many other developments that have fouled athletics in recent years, the roots of the sorry affair are planted in money. San Diego was determined to host a full-fledged, international cup defense in 1991, in large part because the event was expected to bring up to $2 billion to the area.

Let's get back, with a spirit of fair play on all sides, to settling rights to the America's Cup on the high seas rather than in court.

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