First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.
The races are short and intense, fought out in spectacular 7.5-ton, 75-foot foiling monohull yachts that have reached downwind speeds in excess of 100km/h. The motorised support speedboats cannot keep up.
With modern television coverage and overlaid graphics to give the viewer a sense of perspective between the boats on the water, coupled with a sensational backdrop of the coves and bays surrounding Auckland, it has taken sailing to a new audience.
But whenever the America’s Cup comes around, which is roughly every four years, two themes always emerge.
First, it’s the oldest competitive sporting event in the world, dating back to 1851 when the yacht America, beat several British entries around the Isle of Wight. And second, the America’s Cup is synonymous with the longest winning streak in organised sport.
It took 132 years before the New York Yacht Club (NYYC), which represented the United States, relinquished the trophy after 25 successful matches. Australia II, backed by Perth property mogul Alan Bond’s millions that funded a boat with a radical winged-keel design and the exceptional sailing skill of a crew led by skipper John Bertrand, ended the NYYC streak in 1983 in the waters of Newport, Rhode Island.
There is a famous story that when it became clear that the US entry Liberty was in danger of losing the “Auld Mug” for the first time, a reporter asked the NYYC commodore what would replace the trophy on the table where it had stood for 132 years. His answer, given without any humour, was: “The head of the man who loses it.”
That person was skipper Dennis Connor, but happily his head stayed on his shoulders and he gained redemption by reclaiming the America’s Cup in Fremantle four years later.
The America’s Cup story is the most famous of winning streaks, which are an important part of the lexicon of sports. Fans, reporters and competitors are fascinated by streaks.
A streak implies greatness or failure because, by definition, it measures excellence, consistency and success over time. Or the opposite. Just about anyone or any team good enough to compete at the top end of sport, both professional and amateur, can win occasionally.
True greatness comes from winning consistently, and from building a legacy that can last for generations. And true failure comes from doing the opposite.
The Sharks famously existed for 100 years before winning their first Currie Cup title in 1990. The Chicago Cubs went 108 years between World Series baseball titles (1908-2016) and the Caltech basketball team lost 207 straight games between 1996 and 2007 on the US’s competitive collegiate circuit.
Yet streaks are more often associated with success. They come in many different forms and measurements. Depth of competition in a particular sport can skew a statistic.
A top professional football team, for instance, plays roughly 50 matches a year, whereas baseball and basketball teams play north of 80 and 100 matches in a season.
Measured against, say the America’s Cup, where current defenders Team New Zealand have only sailed nine competitive races in four years, all streaks have a unique tinge.
Streaks can be a measurement of longevity, such as quarterback Brett Favre’s 297 consecutive games for the Green Bay Packers in a sport where 19 games in a season is the maximum. Favre’s feat pales next to baseballer Cal Ripken Junior, who played a staggering 2,632 successive games for the Baltimore Orioles over 16 years between 1982 and 1998. To never miss a match through illness, injury or personal reasons is impossible to fathom.
Streaks can be a combination of longevity and success, such as former tennis great Martina Navratilova’s streak of winning at least one Grand Slam title a year for 17 years between 1974 and 1990.
Boxers Sugar Ray Robinson and Julio César Chavez won 91 and 87 consecutive professional bouts respectively and several world titles, whereas Floyd Mayweather retired undefeated after 50 fights.
Manchester City’s recent 21-match winning streak in all competitions ended with a 2-0 loss to cross-town rivals Manchester United last week. At the tip of football’s pyramid, winning 21 consecutive matches was a staggering feat.
Teams have regularly gone more matches without losing, which includes draws, such as Arsenal’s 49-match undefeated run in 2003-04, but to win that many games in succession is one of the great modern streaks. But it is a streak that is relatively short in terms of time, as it occurred over four months.
Also, does a 21-match winning streak carry the same weight if it doesn’t lead to a title and silverware? Breaking streaks into matches and seasons is hardly comparable.
But streaks remain a fascinating sporting discourse and there are some staggering achievements that are worth reflecting on.
The All Blacks won 18 consecutive World Cup matches and claimed two titles between 2011 and 2019, which is a streak unlikely to be broken. It was a period of unusual dominance for the New Zealanders, who also won 100 of 115 games in that period with only 10 losses and five draws, which also included six Rugby Championship titles.
Golfer Byron Nelson won 11 consecutive PGA Tour titles in 1945. You may think that it sounds a bit underwhelming, but consider that the closest anyone has come since is perhaps the greatest of all time – Tiger Woods. Tiger won seven in a row in 2007, underlining just how difficult it is to win consistently in golf.
Chris Evert won 125 consecutive matches on clay courts and, in the men’s game, Rafael Nadal won 81 consecutive matches on the same surface. Navratilova also has the record for the longest winning streak in tennis, with 74 straight victories on all surfaces between 1984 and 1985.
Runner Ed Moses won every 400m hurdles race he competed in between 1977 and 1987 – 122 in all – and the Boston Celtics won eight straight NBA titles between 1959 and 1966.
Perhaps the greatest streak is that of Pakistani squash player Jahangir Khan, who won 555 matches in a row between 1981 and 1986. And so it goes on.
Back in the waters off Auckland, Italian entry Luna Rossa is trying to end a 21-year America’s Cup losing streak. They already ended one streak by winning their first race in the final Match last Wednesday. Now they have sights on ending a much more important losing streak. DM168
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for free to Pick n Pay Smart Shoppers at these Pick n Pay stores.