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Take a different tack

To some it is America's most splendid sporting event - a balletic spectacle of graceful sailing racers pirouetting for advantage and flying before the wind. To nonpareil sports columnist Red Smith it was ''the most absurdly overplayed event in sports . . . a dentist filling a tooth offers livelier entertainment for spectators.''

It is the America's Cup, an exclusive series of races between two expensive 60-foot sailing yachts, held every three years since 1851. The outcome has been as monotonous as a metronome - the American yacht has won every time.

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But next month's races may have a different result. For in the weeding out races now underway off Newport, R.I., to determine which two yachts finally will compete, it has become clear that the fastest boat belongs to Australia - the Australia II. It would be a splendid boost for international yachting if this boat were to take the cup finally from America.

But that prospect appears to worry the official host, the New York Yacht Club , to the point that this sporting event may be held in an atmosphere of poor sportsmanship. At issue is the keel. Whatever keel the Australians have come up with apparently is the reason their boat is exceptionally fast, especially when traveling into the wind.

For weeks the New York Yacht Club has been complaining the keel is illegal, that it falls outside the rather rigid measurement restrictions the rules place upon boat measurements. This past week the International Racing Measurement committee officially ruled the keel is legal, which probably opens the way for the Australia II to become the favorite.

Unfortunately the New York Yacht Club decided to appeal the ruling, almost certainly futilely, to the International Yacht Racing Union.

In the name of good sportsmanship the Yacht Club should cancel its appeal and retire gracefully. For one thing, throughout the history of the race every entrant similarly has tried to develop technical advances to gain a racing edge. Indeed, in the 1851 innaugural race it was the American boat's use of superior Egyptian cotton in its sails that was largely responsible for the defeat of the British boats with their flaxen sails. Since then aluminum has replaced wood in the hulls, lightweight synthetics have been adopted for sails, and computers have been brought aboard.

In the 132-year history of the races the behavior of the host New York Yacht Club has sometimes smacked of questionable sportsmanship, mostly because it made rules that tilted the contest in favor of the American entry. First it insisted that to be eligible every boat except American entries had to be sailed from England, guaranteeing they would be heavy, seaworthy - and slow. For years it said that only its own members could be officials of the races. And for a time recently it set down rules that permitted only US boats to use New England's superior sails.

Enough is enough. The contest now seems fair. If one of the finalists is Australia II, the races might be so interesting that even Red Smith would have been intrigued. It is time for the Yacht Club to take a different tack.

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