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

Oracle Team USA skippered by James Spithill celebrates after beating Emirates Team New Zealand to defend the America's Cup on September 25, 2013 in San Francisco, California.
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Oracle Team USA skippered by James Spithill celebrates after beating Emirates Team New Zealand to defend the America's Cup on September 25, 2013 in San Francisco, California.

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.

(Read more: Larry Ellison's Oracle Team USA keeps 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.

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."

(Read more: Did Larry Ellison cheat in the America's Cup?)

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, the third wealthiest person in America on the Forbes magazine list. After the race he shared Champagne with his crew on the winning boat.

By Bill Dedman of NBC News

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