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Spy claims hit America’s Cup in New Zealand

Team New Zealand said it has fired a number of employees for leaking confidential information as spying claims rocked preparations for next year’s America’s Cup yachting regatta on Tuesday.

New Zealand officials said they were investigating “structural and financial matters” relating to the prestigious race in Auckland as team managing director Grant Dalton announced the sackings.

Few details were revealed but the America’s Cup, the world’s oldest international sporting trophy, has a history of intrigue surrounding the cutting-edge designs employed by teams.

“We’re not 100 percent sure what they (wanted) or what they got,” Dalton told radio station NewstalkZB.

“But what I do know is that the game was up quicker than they expected.”

A Team New Zealand statement said those involved had also made “highly defamatory and inaccurate allegations” against the organisation and some of its personnel.

“These allegations are entirely incorrect,” it said.

Team New Zealand holds hosting rights for the America’s Cup after winning the trophy, known as the Auld Mug, in Bermuda in 2017.

It is organising next year’s event with oversight from the New Zealand government, which has poured more than NZ$120 million ($77 million) into infrastructure and associated costs.

New Zealand’s Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment said it was examining claims relating to the organisation of the event.

Dalton confirmed the sacked employees were New Zealanders working for the event-planning arm of the organisation, not the yacht racing team.

He refused to say how many people were involved, or speculate on their motives.

‘Like James Bond’

The yachts for next year’s regatta are 23-metre (75-foot) monohulls that use a state-of-the-art foiling design, making them expensive to develop and unpredictable in the water.

Dalton said he was concerned Team New Zealand may have lost valuable intellectual property about the vessels.

“Of course I’m worried, absolutely,” he told RNZ.

“But I know the competitors and I know their ethics and I can’t imagine for one millisecond that this has gone (to them).”

The America’s Cup, first contested in 1851, has often seen skullduggery as competitors seek to gain an edge in a sport where innovative design can be crucial. 

Members of the victorious Australia II syndicate in 1983 caught a scuba diver linked to a rival team trying to photograph the boat’s revolutionary winged keel. 

US billionaire Bill Koch led America3 to victory in 1992 and later boasted “we were the ultimate in spying”. 

“We hired divers and we picked up people’s garbage,” he told Boat International. 

“We did everything we could within the rules and the law but we pushed it to the edge.” 

In 2003, US challenger OneWorld was docked points for breaching race rules because it had Team New Zealand’s boat data, apparently obtained from a Kiwi designer who had switched teams.

Before the 2017 regatta, the then-defending champion Jimmy Spithill of Oracle Team USA admitted all teams engaged in spying.

“The level of reconnaissance is right up there,” he said. “It is like James Bond or the CIA. We all have teams based where the other teams are, watching them all the time.”

“You can learn a lot from the competition. That is what it is about in this game. You can look at your competitors and not only take their lessons but improve on it.”

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