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Japanese Syndicate: Six Billion Yen, Lots of Friends

In a time when strife envelops the deserts and cities and waters in the Middle East and spreads its repercussions across the globe, a pleasant wisp of fresh air visited itself upon San Diego Friday.

It had to do with America’s Cup, which has been tainted by strife of a much less malevolent sort for the past few years.

It is going to be different this time. A real competition is coming our way. A real friendly competition among nations is coming our way. This is the way it was supposed to have been all along.

Japan’s Nippon Challenge, indeed, had a coming out party of sorts at a Mission Bay resort. This occasion, the fourth of a monthly series sponsored by the America’s Cup Organizing Committee, attracted a packed crowd of 800 for a taste of both vegetarian lasagna and international good feelings.

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Sports can cause nice things like this to happen, and that’s one of the nice things about sports.

Tatsumitsu Yamasaki, the chairman of the Nippon Challenge, and Kaoru Ogimi, the vice-commodore of the Nippon Ocean Racing Club, were charming and disarming. So was Emili Miura, but a manager of international relations should be.

Yamasaki, remarkably, was the “keynote” speaker for the Nippon group. I say remarkably only became of how he opened his remarks.

“As a yachtsman,” he said. “it has been my biggest dream to challenge for this most prestigious cup. Also, another challenge is to give a speech in English.”

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Less than four years ago, when Yamasaki decided that America’s Cup might be a nice mantelpiece, he did not speak English. This was one learning curve. Another was to put together a yacht according to the specifications of the new America’s Cup Class. A third was to learn to sail it.

“Everything,” Yamasaki said, “had to be started from scratch.”

And darned near everything you needed to know about the Nippon Challenge is covered in a splendidly photographed video presentation.

In fact, this video was almost unbelievably thorough. It showed tank-testing, computer graphics, wind-testing, blueprints and a virtual component-by-component look at the construction of the hull.

At first impression, I thought this must be a rather naive syndicate. I don’t recall anyone showing such preparation and planning in such detail. Submarines have been built with less secrecy than America’s Cup yachts.

And then, lo and behold, a garbled, scrambled image of the hull came onto the screen.

“That,” giggled Miura, “is one of the secret things.”

The crowd laughed. I laughed. I also realized that this video wasn’t showing anything those fun devils did not want shown. It was like a little bit of a strip tease with a gorgeous yacht dancing across the screen.

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And this was (and is) a gorgeous yacht. You could see that when it was launched with a flurry of pomp and pageantry and . . .

“Sake,” Miura explained as bottles were ceremoniously smashed and splashed to the beat of drums. “Not champagne.”

That was yet another reminder of how international in scope and culture the next 16 months are going to be. All of these syndicates will have their own little twists, which reflect more where they are coming from than where they are going.

The video ended, but Miura asked that we continue to watch for maybe another 30 seconds. This time was spent with acknowledgements scrolling across the screen. It read like a who’s who of Japanese multinational corporations.

Ogimi took the microphone and smiled: “That gives you an example of the many lessons we have learned, not only in how to sail boats but also in the commercial field.”

In this sense, the U.S. syndicates should probably be learning the lessons. Only one of the two surviving U.S. syndicates is on sound financial footing and that is because of the wealth of industrialist Bill Koch, whose bankroll is literally keeping America-3 afloat.

Nippon, according to Ogimi, has an operating budget of six billion yen . . . or $40 million . . . spread among 30 corporate sponsors and 38 suppliers.

“Because we have so many,” he mused, “it’s an ideal situation of people putting up money but not having much say about it.”

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So much is ideal about this situation for this group. This campaign started in 1987 with an eye toward competition in 1991. Research and development continued through the court hassles which stymied U.S. efforts. Nippon, essentially, has the luxury of a bonus year of preparation.

These people are here to win, of course, but this group does not seem likely to lose sight of the fact that there can be a very nice side to this America’s Cup stuff.

“This is an exciting experience,” Tatsumitsu Yamasaki said. “Now, perhaps, I am the happiest person in the room. I’m looking very much forward to the next 16 months. We promise to put up the best competition in the beautiful waters of San Diego.”

As I left the room, it struck me. If I were a rooting person, rather than an icily nonpartisan sportswriter, I could go for these people. I didn’t feel that way about either side in the 1988 Catamaran vs. Kiwi fiasco.


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