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The Holy Grails

From the America's Cup to Olympic Medals, Sports Trophies Have Been Kissed, Caressed, Stolen, Smashed, Buried, But Above All, Coveted
Neil A. Grauer
From the Print Edition:
Laurence Fishburne, Jan/Feb 00

On March 14, 1997, Benjamin Peri Nathan, dressed in a suit and tie and carrying a shoulder bag, entered the Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron clubhouse in Auckland and asked to see the America's Cup. Nathan, a member of New Zealand's indigenous Maori tribe, went unaccompanied to the room where the cup stood in a glass case, protected by an alarm but otherwise unguarded.

From his shoulder bag he pulled a sledgehammer, shattered the case, and began pounding the cup, smashing it with up to 50 blows in what one club official later called "a frenzy." Chanting Maori slogans, Nathan stripped off his jacket and shirt, revealing a T-shirt bearing Maori emblems. Maintenance men finally tore him away from the cup--but not before severe damage was done.

The cup's bulbous center was flattened like a hubcap. Its spout also was badly bent. Initially, New Zealand's National Radio reported that the cup was "all but destroyed," and a member of the 1995 New Zealand crew that had won it offered some graveyard humor: "We heard we are going to be racing for the America's Plate now."

Although sports trophies have inspired passion for more than a century, the desire has been to possess not destroy them. They are fought for and wept over, kissed and hugged. Hyperbole about them abounds. Just as athletes compete for the trophies, the trophies themselves compete for superlatives: "the oldest" (the America's Cup; the Stanley Cup), "the most valuable" (the Woodlawn Vase; the Borg-Warner Trophy), "the most coveted" (all of them).

From the dawn of organized sports, athletes have received tokens of esteem for their triumphs--from the wreaths of laurel leaves that

crowned the winning competitors at the first Olympic track meet in 776 B.C., to the medals placed around the necks of modern Olympians. Today, even people who pay practically no attention whatsoever to sports have heard of these glittering goblets, bowls, cups, ewers (pitchers), plates, statuettes, medals, rings and, in a few cases, garments that are bestowed upon the best in athletic competition. In order of age (not importance; we're not going there), here are their stories.

Ironically, the oldest of the great sports trophies--the America's Cup--long had the dullest of chronicles. For 132 years it reposed in the same place--the New York Yacht Club, where it rested inside a glass case. It was bolted, through an oak table, to the floor "as if it were a permanent guest. Almost a member," observed The New York Times.

Upstart Yanks aboard the yacht America first won the cup by besting 14 British vessels in a race around Britain's Isle of Wight on August 22, 1851. Queen Victoria was at Cowes, the fabled yachting center, expecting to see one of her subjects' ships cross the finish line first and win what then was known as the Hundred Guinea Cup. (The cup originally cost 100 guineas, or approximately $500 at the time.) Around 4 p.m., a single sail appeared on the horizon. According to legend, the queen inquired: "Who is in first place?" Told it was the America, she is supposed to have asked: "Then who is second?" The purported reply: "Madam, there is no second."

Thereafter, the cup was named for the yacht that had won it, and the New York Yacht Club successfully defended it against all challengers in 24 competitions over a century, beginning in 1870.

In 1983, Australian Alan Bond, a portly tycoon (who later was imprisoned for embezzlement), finally triumphed in his $16 million, 13-year and four-challenge quest for the cup. By employing a revolutionary winged keel on his yacht Australia II, he won the 27-inch-tall, 16-pound sterling silver Victorian cup (technically, it's a ewer) for the Royal Perth Yacht Club. There it resided until 1987, when the United States regained the cup as Dennis Conner's Stars and Stripes beat the Australian defender Kookaburra III in four straight races. That put the cup in the San Diego Yacht Club until 1995, when New Zealand's Black Magic, under the guidance of organizer Peter Blake (who would be knighted for his achievement) and skipper Russell Coutts beat Conner's Young America in five straight races off the coast of San Diego.

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