It’s doubtful if any New Zealand sportsman has run the gamut of public emotion like cherubic-faced sailor Russell Coutts.
He was saluted when he won an Olympic gold medal in 1984 and became a national hero when he skippered Black Magic to that historic America’s Cup victory in 1995. But within a few years he was publicly branded a traitor and even received death threats.
When the dust finally settles on Coutts’ career, he will be acknowledged as one of New Zealand’s greatest yachtsman. But, fairly or not, there will be a caveat beside his name because of the unhappy circumstances in which he switched from Team New Zealand to the Swiss team Alinghi in 2000.
Coutts then led Alinghi to an America’s Cup triumph in 2003, smashing Team New Zealand 5-0 in the final. He proved his point on the water, but in the process he inflamed already wounded feelings.
He offered the full package as a sailor. He grew up in Wellington and then Dunedin, but completed his Bachelor of Engineering degree at Auckland University in 1986. Thereafter, whatever yachting project he was involved in, he was able to offer as much in technical expertise as in tactical knowledge.
Coutts always appealed as a potentially great sailor, as a youth single-handed world title in 1981 indicated.
But he really came to the public’s attention in 1984 when he won the finn class gold medal at the Los Angeles Olympics. He was brilliant throughout the competition, recording finishes of 1-7-2-2-21-3-5. Before the final race he developed painful boils on his backside and had to compete in agony, even wearing nappies to try to lessen his discomfort.
But he couldn’t afford to miss a step – the competition was extremely tight. Going into the final race almost nothing separated the New Zealander from American John Bertrand and Canadian Terry Neilson. Coutts’ fifth in the final race, just ahead of Neilson, earned him enough points to claim the gold medal.
There was more drama on the final day when his gear, weighed after the race, was found to be too heavy. It required a long, nervous weight while it dried – and consequently got lighter – before he was declared the gold medallist.
Coutts therefore became the first New Zealand yachtie to win a single-handed class as the Olympic Games.
He went on to compile a phenomenal record on the world match-racing circuit, winning world titles in 1992, 1993 and 1996. He had successful forays into such events as the Admiral’s Cup and One Ton Cup and earned world titles in the 12m and Farr 40 classes.
He even attended a second Olympics, at Barcelona in 1992, when he, Simon Daubney and Graham Fleury contested the soling event. Their finishes of 11-9-12-2-12-6 placed them eighth.
Little wonder Peter Blake asked him to skipper NZL 32, dubbed Black Magic, in the 1995 America’s Cup challenge. Blake and Coutts formed a formidable team. Blake did the organising and Coutts concentrated on making the boat go fast.
Black Magic swept to the Louis Vuitton Cup, then pounded Dennis Conner’s Young America 5-0 in the final. Coutts was the toast of New Zealand. There were joyous scenes when the America’s Cup victors were accorded huge parades through New Zealand’s main cities.
Coutts was awarded a CBE, was named World Sailor of the Year and won the Halberg Award with Team New Zealand.
Coutts proved just as ruthless defending the cup as he had been in winning it. In 2000 Coutts and his tactician, Brad Butterworth, were an unbeatable combination and Team New Zealand outclassed Prada 5-0 to retain the cup. Coutts was made a Distinguished Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit, and later accepted a knighthood.
Months after the victory, Coutts split from Team New Zealand, and Butterworth went with him. They were lured to the Alinghi campaign by a huge pay offer and disenchantment with how things were going inside the Team New Zealand camp. That he subsequently returned to Auckland in Alinghi colours and won again merely confirmed that behind the smile was a ruthlessly competitive sailor.
Coutts was awarded his second World Sailor of the Year crown in 2003.
Ironically, he later fell out with Alinghi boss Ernesto Bertarelli and was fired. Under the curious rules of America’s Cup racing, this meant Coutts, the greatest sailor in the competition’s history – he had won 14 finals races – had to sit out the 2007 event. He then signed for the American syndicate Oracle, as chief executive and skipper of BMW Oracle Racing.
In 2010 Coutts' yacht USA beat the defending yacht Alinghi 5 by considerable margins in both America’s Cup final races.
By 2013 Coutts was chief executive officer for the Oracle team and oversaw an amazing comeback in the America’s Cup final. Team New Zealand led Oracle 8-1 in the waters off San Francisco, but Oracle stormed back to retain the cup with a 9-8 victory.