Abandoning Neutrality

Times Staff Writer

Long known as a haven for secret bank accounts, chocolate, cheese, watches, Army knives and edelweiss, Switzerland has abruptly embraced a new national totem, Alinghi.

That's the name of the Swiss entry that is surprisingly dominating the America's Cup yacht race finals in faraway New Zealand, burnishing Swiss spirit and pride.

At the arrivals floor at the Geneva airport and in little villages such as Coinsins, scoreboards have been put up that show Alinghi whipping Team New Zealand in the best-of-nine series, 4-0.

Because of the 12-hour time difference, the races start here early in the morning, and college students are putting off term papers to stay up to watch -- of all things in this landlocked country! -- sailing. Moms and dads, like Thierry and Anne Marie Mosse, are leaving their little kids at home with grandparents or sitters to go out to watch.

"There are a couple of things we're proud of in Switzerland," said Thierry Mosse, a 35-year-old sales executive. "The first is skiing. The second -- Alinghi."

An Alinghi "cloche" -- a cowbell the likes of which Swiss fans usually lug up mountains to cheer on their Alpine skiers -- has become a must-have souvenir; the back order, according to one saleswoman in Geneva, having reached four weeks.

At La Societe Nautique de Geneve, the Geneva yacht club that serves as Alinghi's home base, races are shown live on five televisions, one a big-screen.

Fans who want to show solidarity by buying a baseball cap from the club stash of Alinghi gear can't. Sold out.

Newspapers have taken up the cheer, fawning over the Swiss team and entourage. The paper Le Matin recently featured a cover photo of Kirsty Bertarelli, the striking blond wife of Alinghi chief Ernesto Bertarelli, describing her in a story as "beautiful, rich, sympathetic and intelligent."

Alinghi won the first four races in Hauraki Gulf before Race 5 today was postponed for lack of wind, the seventh postponement in the finals, and rescheduled for Sunday.

Alinghi's dominance has already sparked speculation about where the next America's Cup might be held; should Alinghi win, the 2006 Cup will be the first held in Europe since 1851.

Geneva, perched near the southwest corner of a 50-mile-long, oblong-shaped freshwater lake, is an unlikely host.

The 1887 Deed of Gift for the Cup calls for racing on "an ocean water course on the sea." Litigation has been as much a part of recent America's Cup history as racing, however, so it can't be assured that the lake won't do.

Already bidding for attention are Mediterranean ports such as Marseille and Sete in France; Barcelona, Spain; Naples, Italy, and, if the choice should be sailing in the Atlantic Ocean, Cascais, Portugal, near Lisbon.

Sete, a town of 40,000 near much-larger Montpellier, served as Alinghi's training base in the summer of 2001. Sete's mayor, Francois Commeinhes, said officials see the possibility of a 2006 America's Cup as nothing less than the "opportunity for the city to open itself to the world."

For Alec Tournier, secretary general of La Societe Nautique de Geneve, the yacht club, an Alinghi win offers a happy dilemma. There would be lots of decisions to make, he said. But first, lots of parties to throw.

Tempering his comments by cautioning that Alinghi hasn't won yet, Tournier said, "The first thing is, the club will be well known. It will be known all over the world."

In recent years, the words "Swiss," "sports" and "world champion" have not often been seen in the same sentence. The Swiss ski team, for example, was a bust at the recently concluded World Championships -- held on home snow in St. Moritz.

Switzerland won no events. Adding further insult, an American, Bode Miller, won two and took silver in another.

In soccer, Switzerland did not even qualify for last year's World Cup in South Korea and Japan.

As for the Olympics, the last time the Swiss were hosts was 1948. Sion, a mountain burg about three hours from Geneva, bid for the 2006 Winter Games. It lost, to Turin, Italy.

Women's tennis star Martina Hingis is arguably Switzerland's most famous athlete with five Grand Slam event victories. But, plagued by injuries, she has all but retired at 22.

There have been a few other Swiss successes, such as ski jumper Simon Ammann, the teenage Harry Potter look-alike who won two gold medals in last year's Winter Games in Salt Lake City.

But perhaps the most lasting image of Swiss athletic prowess remains Gabriele Andersen-Scheiss, an Idaho ski instructor using her dual citizenship to represent Switzerland. Suffering from heat exhaustion and staggering like a wounded bird, she made it to the finish line of the women's marathon at the 1984 Summer Games in Los Angeles.

Now, in contrast, comes the sleek and speedy Alinghi.

"I'm very proud," said Aurelie Le Fort, a 20-year-old college student. "They've done a lot of work to make their dreams come true."

An America's Cup campaign is a complex enterprise. And it costs millions of dollars. To succeed requires organizational dexterity and financial acuity -- certainly characteristics of the Swiss, say the Swiss.

Estimates of Bertarelli's multiyear Alinghi effort run to $90 million; he is a biotechnology magnate.

It has been noted that many on the Alinghi team are foreigners -- right up to skipper Russell Coutts, who won the last two America's Cups while sailing for New Zealand.

At home, the switch in allegiance has -- in some circles -- branded Coutts a traitor. But Swiss fans keep asking, perhaps in a bid to convince themselves: What could be more Swiss than combining the best from elsewhere with Swiss know-how? Key design work on the boat was done in Lausanne, about an hour around the lake from Geneva.

In a statement before the start of the finals Feb. 15, Swiss President Pascal Couchepin said Alinghi was "flying the flag of Switzerland -- multicultural, open to the world and creative."

Echoed Thierry Reverdin, 51, a financial consultant born in Geneva, "Bertarelli's idea was to build to the highest standards, use the highest technology. He used Swiss tools and an international team."

Thus, multitudes of new America's Cup enthusiasts have become wee-hours TV viewers -- staying up late in hopes of spying blond Kirsty and, of course, rooting for Alinghi.

Thierry Mosse, plotting all week to get to the yacht club early, the better to get a good seat in front of the biggest TV, said he could hardly wait for Alinghi to clinch.

"I bring the champagne," he said.

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