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The cup and the winged keel. Now, mass interest billows the sails.

Big-time, 12-meter yacht racing -- and that means the America's Cup -- was once an event between millionaire owners, of only passing interest to the man and woman in the street. That was true until the the 25th series captivated the sports world in 1983. This event, which saw Australia's Challenger end more than a century of United States domination, has succeeded in escalating interest in the forthcoming 26th series to hitherto unimagined proportions. More than a million sailing enthusiasts are expected in the next several months to visit Fremantle, Western Australia, headquarters for the nearby Indian Ocean courses. International media coverage is likely to be of Olympic dimensions.

This is a far cry indeed from the historic first contest, won by the schooner America around the Isle of Wight off the English south coast in 1851, which possibly makes the America's Cup the oldest trophy in international sport.

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The extravagance now involved is almost beyond belief. No longer are competing yachts owned by individuals. Now each is run by a syndicate and the imminent showdown, extending from October until next February, will initially involve 20 contenders -- seven from the defending host nation, six from the United States, two apiece from France and Italy, and one each from Canada, Great Britain, and New Zealand.

Alan Bond's syndicate, which won the trophy in '83, when Australia II erased a 3-1 deficit to beat the American defender, Liberty, off Newport, Rhode Island, plans to start with two contenders, Australia III and IV.

The total cost to the syndicates involved is estimated to be in the region of $225 million.

More than 600 races may be necessary to determine the defender and challenger -- up to 128 for the Australians and 489 for the rest.

The expected American lineup will comprise America II (New York), Courageous (Yale), Eagle (Newport), Eagle (St. Francis), Heart of America (Chicago), and Stars and Stripes (San Diego).

The challengers' final, the best-of-seven races between the two survivors, is scheduled for Jan. 13-23, while the two Australians still in contention have their final.

The decks will thus be cleared, so to speak, for the two-yacht cup round beginning Jan. 31, a best-of-seven series to decide who will own the cup for another three or four years.

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Keen, often grim contests, with protracting protests at the drop of a hat, are eagerly awaited. Ironically, the upside-down winged keel used by the 1983 victor, which caused such vehement accusations of rule-breaking, has subsequently proved so superior that this time few contestants, if any, are likely to compete without one. A visit with a soccer legend

Many believe he was the greatest soccer player the world has known. Sir Stanley Matthews, a still sprightly 70, continues to contribute much to the game he loves -- not as an administrator, but as a zealously active coach preserving the track-suit image.

He would not want it any other way. Always a martyr to maintaining physical fitness -- a practice inherited from his father, a professional boxer -- he retains an admirably slim figure and is happy still to demonstrate by example while passing on his knowledge of sheer wizardry with the ball.

While based near Toronto during the late summer and early winter months, he coaches at schools in Ontario and also at the Mountain View Soccer Camp in Lake Placid, New York.

The North American standard of play still lags behind Europe and South America, but enthusiasm is now on the increase and active encouragement at the high school level must eventually upgrade Canada and the US to higher World Cup status.

As of late, Sir Stanley often spends several months of the year advising in South Africa, where his pupils are mostly nonwhite. When meeting me recently in London, he preferred not to discuss apartheid. ``That is politics. Sport should be kept separate.''

He regretted that South Africans were not able to participate in the World Cup. ``If they did, it is certain no white player would merit selection because the blacks are so talented.''

That is one of the ironies of the continuing ban on South Africa in international sports. For years now, sport within the republic has been multiracial.

Matthews, whose 34-year playing career with Stoke City and Blackpool included more than 70 England internationals and two World Cup series in Brazil and Switzerland, is perhaps remembered particularly for the way he transformed a 3-1 Wembley Cup final deficit into a cliff-hanging 4-3 victory for Blackpool against the Bolton Wanderers in 1953.

Playing his last and 701st English League game in 1965 at the age of 51, he seems destined also to set a long-serving record as coach and technical consultant.

``But I could not go on without the wonderful inspiration and moral support of Mila,'' he smiled, turning to his charming Czechoslovakian wife, a keen skier and coauthor of their fascinating autobiography, ``Back in Touch.''

A shining example both on and off the field and always the unselfish tablesetter rather than the goal scorer, he takes great enjoyment today in teaching the skills that characterized his play -- the mesmerizing feint, shuffle, swerve, and sudden acceleration, ending so often with a defense-splitting pass.

When I reminded him of a time at Highbury, London, when his inimitable magic turned a 4-0 Arsenal halftime lead into a 4-4 draw with Blackpool, his spontaneous, detailed recall pinpointed almost every strategic move of that match. ``The good ones I never forget.'' Sneak peek at Olympic facilities

Queen Elizabeth II, as head of the British Commonwealth, is expected to open the 15th Olympic Winter Games on Feb. 13, 1988, in Calgary, Alberta. Mayor Ralph Klein's official invitation has been acknowledged by Buckingham Palace and formal acceptance early next year is eagerly awaited.

Preparations are well on schedule for perhaps the most ambitious meeting yet, at an estimated cost of $1.2 billion. A record entry of more than 40 nations, represented by some 1,700 athletes, appear destined to enjoy excellent facilities.

Gunnar Ericsson, acting as spokesman for an early group of visiting International Olympic Committee members said: ``The Olympic athletes' village will be one of the best ever seen, right in the city and affording many sophisticated means of training. The overall plans convince us that there will be no transportation problems of the kind experienced at Lake Placid in 1980.

``We don't think the distances between the sites are too far at all. We are impressed with the sites for the nordic and alpine events and were very agreeably surprised to see the way in which they fall naturally into development areas for local recreational needs.''

The sites are conveniently compressed into three compact areas. The opening and closing ceremonies will be held at McMahon Stadium, enlarged to allow 50,000 spectators, adjacent to a new Olympic Oval speed skating stadium, containing the world's first fully covered 400-meter ice circuit.

Facing this are the twin ski jumping towers and a fully floodlit bobsled course.

The ice hockey and figure skating will be contested at a new, architecturally impressive all-purpose arena, the Olympic Saddledome in downtown Calgary, designed to seat 18,000, and at the Corral rink beside the Stampede Corral, famous for its annual rodeo.

The luxurious athletes' village, located on the University of Calgary campus, completes the city area sites.

The alpine ski races will take place some 80 miles from Calgary at Mount Allan, where a 255-acre development is equipped with three chairlifts serving 30 ski slopes, the highest starting at 5,200 feet.

The cross-country skiing and biathlon events will be held 15 miles away at the Canmore Nordic Centre, which has hosted World Cup alpine races.

With a profusion of hotel accommodations in the city to accommodate visitors, Calgary seems well on course for the first Winter Olympics to be hosted by Canada.

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