he 34th America's Cup wraps up today with a winner-take-all finale in San Francisco. The race pits Oracle Team USA against Emirates Team New Zealand to determine who will take home yachting's oldest, most prestigious prize.
Yet the race is hardly a boring competition between stodgy old rich dudes in monocles anymore. Ok, so yachting is still dominated by rich old dudes — like Team USA sponsor and Oracle co-founder Larry Ellison — but the races themselves are now fast-paced, dangerous events. And this year's competition in particular has many layers of intrigue.
Here, a primer to get you up to speed before today's grand finale:
5. Oldest trophy in sports
Perhaps unsurprisingly, competitive yachting predates the types of sports Americans are most familiar with. Basketball, for instance, wasn't even invented until 1891, one year before the Stanley Cup debuted. The America's cup, meanwhile, dates back to 1851.
In the first ever race, an American boat named, creatively, America, defeated 15 other boats to capture the trophy. Hence, the trophy became known as the America's Cup, named for the ship, not the country.
4. USA! USA!
Though most Americans don't really give a hoot about the event — the races have drawn puny ratings — American teams have dominated the competition, winning 29 of 33 times. American teams remained unbeaten until 1983, when an Australian crew finally ended the U.S.'s dominance.
3. Cheating scandal
Days before the America's Cup finals began, the American team suffered an embarrassing cheating scandal when an international jury docked the team two points and booted three crew members for illegally adding extra weight to team boats.
The punishment, the harshest in race history, put the Americans at an immediate disadvantage. The finals are a best-of-17 series, and with Oracle effectively entering in a two-point hole, the Americans would have to win 11 races to defend their title and take home the trophy.
The cheating did not occur during the finals, but rather in qualifying races dating back to 2012. Some American crewmembers placed bags of lead pellets in the smaller 45-foot catamarans used for those races, not the larger 72-foot boats used in the finals. All of those boats were supposed to be uniform for every team, so the added weight was considered an unfair advantage.
2. American comeback
Already down two points because of the cheating sanctions, the American team dropped eight of the first eleven races, pushing them to the brink of elimination. Though the Americans won three races, they were awarded only one point because of the penalty, and effectively trailed 8-1.
With the defending champions heading for an apparent blowout defeat, the San Francisco Chronicle dubbed their effort "perhaps the worst nautical launch since the Titanic set off across the North Atlantic."
Then the Americans battled back, reeling off seven straight wins to tie things up on Tuesday. It's been hailed as the greatest comeback in the cup's 162-year history, and comparable to the Boston Red Sox unprecedented comeback from an 0-3 hole in the 2004 American League Championship Series.
1. High-tech boats
No longer is the event a race between hulking wooden boats of yesteryear. Now, the competitive catamarans look more like something dreamed up by Red Bull executives — and indeed, crewmembers wear helmets, the Americans' emblazoned with Red Bull logos.
Teams now pilot AC72s, twin-hulled yachts with 13-story sails designed like airplane wings that allow the boats to actually rise out of the water.(The New York Times has a fantastic interactive explaining the boat's design and physics in greater detail here.) Since water is denser than air, the lift allows the boats to reach previously unheard of speeds of up to 50 miles-per-hour.
"Ultimately, these things fly like an aircraft in terms of wings," Adam May, of Sweden's Artemis Racing, told the Associated Press.
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