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The Australians have brought new luster to a sailing classic

I was in SYDNEY RECENTLY, and I went to a concert in that radically elegant piece of architecture known as the Sydney Opera House. Once you have seen it, you can never forget it. The Opera House stands on a point in the harbor, and it is designed to look like huge wind-filled sails or the crests of great waves, or both. The concert I heard was performed by the Elizabethan Sydney Orchestra as part of a series called Mostly Mozart. The program notes included a biographical sketch of the composer, which read in part, "All his life Mozart was too lacking in guile and too outspoken in his ideals to secure a worldly position. When he died at the age of 35 in 1791, he was buried in an unmarked pauper's grave."

I had just arrived in Sydney after three weeks in Fremantle, on the opposite coast of Australia, where I had been immersed in the America's Cup racing. During this high-priced, high-pressure event, Fremantle has become a decidedly un-Mozartian environment in which paupers are unknown and anyone lacking in guile would not have been able to sail a 12-meter yacht out to the starting line, let alone find the means and the millions to get one built. Pragmatic men of worldly position rule these races, and they know that all the idealism in the world can't raise a spinnaker in six seconds after a boat rounds the windward mark. The America's Cup is no place for a Mozart. And yet there is something about this Cup campaign in Fremantle that seems to bear a touch of blessed genius, something that suggests we are witnessing the making of a classic that will prove in the long run to be of far greater significance than the outcome of the event itself.

The America's Cup is being reinvented in the cracking winds and roisterous waters of the Indian Ocean. This is happening in much the same way that it did in 1984 when Los Angeles reinvented the Olympic Games with a high-energy transfusion of American show biz and big biz that resulted in an unforgettable spectacle of splash and class, in spite of the Soviet boycott and various other bad vibes in the Olympic movement.

On the whole, Australians seem to be a relatively low-confidence lot, accepting with a certain docility some kind of second-class citizenship in the world. They are so far from everything that they just can't make themselves believe that they can ever make a difference in anything that matters—from politics to art to economics to sports. Well, they are wrong. By winning the America's Cup away from the stodgy New York Yacht Club in Newport in 1983 and by putting on one of the most stylish regattas ever seen, Australians have already made a monumental difference in a great sporting event.

The racing in Fremantle has been consistently excellent—day after day of bright sun, high wind, challenging sea conditions. The shore facilities are superb—the Victorian, movie-set streets of the town, the spacious new $5.3 million marina that helped make room for the original 19-boat flotilla of challengers and defenders, the cheerful $975,000 state-of-the-art media center in which no reasonable request goes ignored and where every press conference is adorned with bouquets of fresh flowers.

The Fremantle process of elimination that ultimately selected the Kookaburra syndicate as the Australian defender involved a series of races in which the results could easily be charted by both press and public. In Newport, the NYYC operated in secrecy to select its defending boat, never deigning to reveal to a suspicious world exactly what standards it used in the process. The Fremantle elimination series for challengers lasted three months and, at times, seemed eternal. But then, as Stars & Stripes swept past New Zealand 4-1 in the final races, the excitement built to rare peaks—aided immeasurably by the intelligent and unprecedented live TV coverage that ESPN beamed back to amazingly large late-night audiences in the U.S.

By contrast to Fremantle, Newport seems dull, chilly and oddly claustrophobic, a far-off memory of morning fog, dubious wind and brigades of martinets from that tight little club in New York. In truth, the America's Cup races, long touted as one of the premier events in world sports, had come to be boring and rather bush league after so many decades in Newport.

Australia has returned the America's Cup to first-class status. Even if the Aussies lose, the brilliant new standards they have set will certainly prevail in the next campaign, wherever it may be. They have reinvented a classic in Fremantle and come up with a creation that is, in its way, as elegant and unforgettable as the Sydney Opera House itself. If one dared measure the making of a sporting event in the same terms that one applies to more exalted forms of creativity, the Fremantle America's Cup would have to be rated Almost Mozart.