By Greg Stutchbury
WELLINGTON (Reuters) - New Zealand Prime Minister John Key summed up the feelings of his country when their America's Cup team were beaten by Oracle Team USA in the winner-take-all showdown in San Francisco on Thursday.
"Bugger," he Tweeted from New York.
In a taciturn country where one word is more than enough to convey the gamut of emotions, it said it all. Frustration, disappointment and, ultimately, resigned acceptance.
Tens of thousands had been on tenterhooks for a week as Dean Barker's Team New Zealand established what many considered an unassailable 8-1 lead, needing just one more win to clinch international sport's oldest trophy and return it to Auckland.
Oracle, however, powered back with eight successive wins to seal the trophy in a remarkable comeback that helped make the once-troubled event among the most exciting in sailing history.
"Not unexpected. It just seemed fairly obvious over the last week that the gains Oracle have made they have got better and better," Graeme Mercer, a sailing instructor at Wellington's Royal Port Nicholson Yacht Club, told Reuters of the final day's racing.
"Our boat wouldn't go any faster and today just showed that despite the minor errors that Team New Zealand had made in some of the previous races, it wouldn't have made any difference."
Backed by NZ$36 million ($30 million) in public funds, Team New Zealand's performances to establish their lead had created a sense of expectation that a trophy they had last held in 2003 was within their grasp.
Despite the stunning turnaround, Mercer said Oracle had won as a result of a sensational fightback, not by Team New Zealand choking.
"Choking is an armchair critic response from people who have no idea what they're talking about," he added.
"Maybe if you're putting a golf ball and muff it ... but this is a technology sport and ... Team New Zealand could not have raced any faster.
"Oracle continued to pull away upwind and that technology is what delivered it for them."
Oracle team boss Russell Coutts, who won the America's Cup twice for New Zealand in 1995 and 2000, told Reuters in San Francisco that despite having a population of only 4.4 million, New Zealanders would fully have expected to win.
"New Zealand expects a lot out of their sports people," he added. "As a nation we generally fight above our weight.
"As a nation we expect the All Blacks to win and expect our sailing teams to win and if they don't people say 'Why not?' I don't think that's a bad thing."
In addition to missing out on the sport's bragging rights, New Zealand is set to miss out on an estimated NZ$500 million in additional economic activity for its $170 billion economy.
Despite the defeat, New Zealand's marine industry was still seeing some positive spinoffs.
Oracle established an 80-strong boatbuilding factory in Warkworth, north of Auckland, for the regatta, while more than 40 other local companies had provided components and expertise to the four syndicates.
"What happened was all very unfortunate, but the positive spin is that it's really revitalized the America's Cup," said Peter Thomas, project manager at Cookson Boats, which built TNZ's two state-of-the-art 72-foot catamarans.
"The man in the street now is excited to watch it.
"Team New Zealand did such a bloody good job that I'm sure the whole world feels for them.
"They didn't win it but everything else is good. The New Zealand marine industry will benefit from this."
(Additional reporting by Alden Bentley in San Francisco and Naomi Tajitsu in Wellington; Editing by Peter Rutherford)