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Cheating penalty nearly scuttled Team USA's America's Cup victory

In one of the greatest comebacks in recent sports history, Oracle Team USA beat New Zealand after being down 8-1 races. NBC's Mike Taibbi reports.

By Bill DedmanInvestigative Reporter, NBC News

If you'd still cheer for a home run hitter who was caught using a cork-filled bat, then the victory of Oracle Team USA in Wednesday's final race of the America's Cup is for you.

Team USA could have won the 2013 series earlier if it hadn't been docked two wins for cheating by illegally modifying its boats to make them faster and more stable. The cheating didn't happen during the America's Cup match but during the Cup's warm-up regattas in 2012. Earlier this month an international jury handed out a two-race penalty, fined the team $250,000, expelled three crew members and suspended a fourth. It was the harshest punishment in the 162-year history of the America's Cup.

That meant to capture the Cup, Oracle Team USA had to win 11 races, while the Kiwis needed to win only nine.

Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

Oracle Team USA celebrates after successfully defending the America's Cup on Wednesday in San Francisco Bay.

Despite the self-inflicted handicap, the defending champions from the American team prevailed in Wednesday afternoon's winner-take-all showdown in the yachting match race in San Francisco Bay, defeating Emirates Team New Zealand easily to win the Auld Mug, the oldest trophy in international sports. After trailing eight races to one, then facing down match points for a full week, Team USA's black boat came back to win seven straight races before capturing the final race against the red boat of challenger Emirates Team New Zealand. The final Cup score was nine wins for the Americans, eight for the Kiwis.

The America's Cup jury found that members of the Team USA crew placed bags of lead shot and lead tailings in at least two of their high-tech 45-foot black boats to make them faster, and extended the main king post, or strut, for greater stability. These were smaller, practice boats, not the 72-foot wing-sail catamarans that ripped through the San Francisco Bay waters at nearly 50 mph in the Cup match.

The "gross breach" of good sportsmanship hit one Cup official in the gut. Nick Nicholson, chairman of the America's Cup measurement committee, said the Cup is based on trust among the competitors.

"I felt old, and used, and stupid," Nicholson said when asked about his reaction upon finding the modifications. "Our trust in the team had been betrayed, trust had been abused."

As to whether the modifications would have been approved if Oracle Team USA had sought permission, Nicholson said, "We would have laughed them out of the room."

Sailing fans have been subdued in reaction to the scandal, said Kimball Livingston, a competitive sailor who was at Marina Green in San Francisco watching the race and blogging at blueplanettimes.com. "It's dismaying, to say the least. It's also confusing. I don't understand why you would bother to cheat a little bit for an exhibition race. Since it's unfathomable to me, and no real coherent explanation has been offered, I've put it aside and choose not to think about it." He said before Wednesday's race that he was more focused on "truly the most exciting sailing that anyone has witnessed in the history of the galaxy."

Oracle Team USA is backed by the man who controls the America's Cup, billionaire Larry Ellison, co-founder and CEO of the software company Oracle Corp., the third wealthiest person in America on the Forbes magazine list. After the race he shared Champagne with his crew on the winning boat.

The cheating scandal and the loss of two wins were not mentioned in the broadcast of the America's Cup finale on the NBC Sports Network. (NBC Sports Group, which like NBCNews.com is owned by NBC Universal, acquired the rights by agreement with Ellison and the America's Cup, without paying a rights fee, according to The Associated Press.) An NBC Sports spokesperson said,"We made mention of the penalty numerous times during the course of our 19-race telecast.”

Livingstone said the the cheating clearly goes against the ethics of a sport built on trust. "If I'm out on an ocean race and the wind dies down, I don't turn on the motor and drive the boat with the propeller," he said. "This is a self-policing game."

The executive editor of SAIL Magazine, Adam Cort, said most sailors realize that the cheating is an embarrassment for the sport. "Adding 10 pounds of weight and making a strut a few inches longer does make the boat go faster. It could make an appreciable difference. It would be like corking a bat in baseball."

The two-race penalty was striking because it was not carried out in the event where it occurred. The regattas last year were not qualifying races but simply pre-match exhibitions — Team USA didn't need to win those to make it to the Cup final. "This wasn't the Black Sox throwing the World Series," editor Cort said. "This was like some of the players cheating in a game early in the season that made no difference."

In addition to being docked two wins, Team USA lost three crew members, including one of its key sailors: Dirk de Ridder, who trims the wingsail powering the boat. The others suspended from the entire America's Cup were a rigger and a boat builder. A grinder was suspended for four races, and one sailor was given a warning. (Read the jury's findings here and here and here.)

Oracle Team USA's CEO, Russell Coutts, said the modifications were a "stupid thing to do," but called the penalty "ridiculous" and "grossly unfair."

Daniel Ochoa De Olza / AP file

Sail trimmer Dirk de Ridder was thrown overboard from this year's America's Cup after an investigation of cheating by Oracle Team USA.

"It sets an unbelievable precedent," Coutts told The Associated Press when the penalty was handed down. "The rules infractions involved only a few of our 130 team members and were done without the knowledge of either our team's management or the skippers who were driving the boats. … Think of Olympic athletes on a team breaking the rules and a whole team getting penalized. It's completely outrageous."

The jury found evidence of only a small group that knew of the cheating, though editor Cort expressed doubt about that. The trimmer de Ridder, one of the two main crew members sailing the boat, was the one who ordered low-level crew members to make the illegal modifications, the jury found. "It's like Abu Graib or on Wall Street," Cort said. "The big guys never get punished."

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