Sailing has a strong history in the modern Olympic Games. The sport made its Olympic Games debut in 1900 and has appeared at every Olympic Games since 1908. Originally called 'Yachting', the sport's name was changed to 'Sailing' in 2000 to reflect modern terminology. Over the years, there have been many variations in the classes competing, the courses and race formats. Today's competition is completely dinghy-dominated, with recent Olympic Sailing Regattas moving increasingly towards high-speed classes, racing on shorter courses, adding to the spectacle for those watching.

Finns at the 2012 Olympic Games.

The Finn class is the oldest still competing at the Olympic Games. Photo Tom Gruitt/Creating Waves.



Olympic Sailing history

When Olympic Sailing was young, most competition took place in yacht or keelboat classes. The first Olympic Yachting Regatta, held in 1900 on the River Seine as part of the Paris Olympic Games, was held in large yachts. It included an ‘open’ handicap class and six other classes rating from 0.5 to 20 tonnes.

In the early years, Olympic Sailing had no restrictions on the number of entries per country, giving home nations a particular advantage. In 1900 France won all three medals in the Half-Tonne class and topped the medal table with four golds, four silvers and six bronze medals. Great Britain was second. The half-tonner Scotia is the only yacht to have ever won two medals, winning silver in the 0.5-1 tonne class and a gold in the ‘open’ class. In more recent years, only one entry per nation has been allowed, making it impossible for any country to win more than one medal per class.

The 1908 Games saw the introduction of the newly formed Metre classes. They were used for a number of Olympic regattas, but the future lay in one-design classes, which are very similar, if not identical, putting the emphasis much more on a sailor's skill rather than the design of their individual boat. The Star keelboat, which made a record 19th appearance in the London 2012 Olympic Games, made its debut at the Los Angeles Games in 1932. It was one of the last keelboats to compete in the Olympics, as it lost its spot for the 2016 Rio Olympics.

Few competitors contested Olympic yachting during the early years as entries were restricted to those with enough money to fund the entire campaign, boat and crew, themselves. However, it wasn’t unusual for women to compete. British women Frances Rivett-Carnac (1908 London) and Dorothy Wright (1920 Antwerp), for example, both won Olympic titles with their husbands.

The 1948 London Games, which was known as the ‘austerity Games’, coming as it did straight after World War II, saw the birth of a legend. A 19-year-old Danish sailor named Paul Elvstrøm won his first gold in the Olympic monotype (the Firefly dinghy). Seven more Olympic Games and three more golds were to follow, a record unequaled until Ben Ainslie won his fourth gold in 2012 (see First Olympic Sailing medals decided in Weymouth). Competition during this era was still strictly amateur, but smaller boats did make the sport more accessible. Competition gradually got tougher with bigger fleets and more countries on the entry list.

A huge purpose-built marina was the host facility at Kiel for the Munich Games in 1972, and the number of classes increased from five to six. For Montreal in 1976, two keelboat classes were replaced by the glassfibre 470 dinghy and the multihull Tornado in a bid to modernise the Games. It was the beginning of a move that would end in a total dinghy line-up by the 2016 Olympic Games.

In 1988 in Busan, Korea, the first women’s class was introduced, with the 470 being split into separate events for men and women. The USA’s Lynne Jewell and Alison Jolly won the first women’s gold medal. The following Olympic Games, Barcelona 1992, saw the introduction of two further women's classes for windsurfing and singlehanded dinghy sailing, by which time there were 10 classes in total. By 2000 this was up to an all-time high of 11 classes for the Sydney Olympic Games, this dropped back to 10 classes for the London 2012 event. The popularity of Olympic competition has seen Sailing having to defend the number of events it runs, and has led to moves to maximise the accessibility and television appeal of the sport in an effort to protect its standing, as other sports aim to enter or grow their Olympic presence.


Olympic Sailing classes - 2016

The current Olympic Sailing line-up comprises 10 classes. The 2016 Olympic Games in Rio, Brazil will be the first Olympic Games without a keelboat class, after the Elliot 6M and Star classes lost their Olympic status following the London 2012 Olympic Games. A total of 270 sailors from 62 countries will compete in the 2016 Olympic regatta in five men’s classes, four women’s classes, and one mixed class. The classes are as follows…


470s racing in Weymouth at the London 2012 Olympic Games. Photo Tom Gruitt/Creating Waves.

470s racing in Weymouth at the London 2012 Olympic Games. Photo Onedition.


470: men's doublehander

The two-person 470 dinghy is unique in that exactly the same class of boat is used for separate men's and women's competitions. The boat has a mainsail, a jib and a conventional spinnaker, which is used downwind. It has a single trapeze which is used by the crew. Designed by Andre Cornu in 1963, it first appeared at the 1976 Montreal Olympic Games. Helms tend to be smaller in stature, with crews larger to maximise leverage on the trapeze.

470: women's doublehander

The separate women's doublehanded class was introduced in 1988. Before its introduction all the Olympic classes were 'open', meaning men and women could compete, although female competitors, especially helms, were rare.

49er: men's skiff

The twin-trapeze, high performance skiff, the 49er, was introduced for the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games as a mixed class, although at the top level it was almost exclusively sailed by men. It has a mainsail, a jib and an asymmetric spinnaker. The boats are high speed and exciting to watch, and capsizing when the breeze is up isn't unheard of even for the top sailors, adding to the spectacle for those watching.

49erFX: women's skiff

The 49erFX is a version of the 49er with a smaller, less-powerful sailplan, and was introduced as a women's skiff class for 2016 after many years of campaigning for an exciting female-specific class. Its selection followed extensive trails (see Mackay 49erFX is selected as Women’s Olympic Skiff for 2016).

Finn: men's heavyweight singlehanded dinghy

The Finn class is currently the oldest class in the Olympic Games. Designed by Richard Sarby in 1949, its Olympic debut was back in 1952, and it has been used at every Games since. Legendary Danish sailor Paul Elvstrom won the first gold medal in the class, his second in a record run of four gold medals, which was equaled by Britain's Ben Ainslie in 2012 when he won his fourth gold title in the Finn. The Finn is a very technical boat, a one-design with tight rules but a variety of builders and sailmakers allowing for some innovation. Sailors bring their own boats to the competition.

Laser: men's singlehanded dinghy

Designed by Bruce Kirby in 1969, the Laser is the most widely raced of all the Olympic classes, sailed in more than 140 countries worldwide. A relatively simple dinghy, built to a strict one-design, hulls and rigs are supplied at major championships and allocated by a draw. In theory, all the boat are identical, and they are certainly much closer to that ideal than the boats in most classes. The Laser made its first appearance at the Savannah Olympic Games in 1996 when a young Ben Ainslie won silver behind a young Brazilian sailor Robert Scheidt; both went on to become superstars in the sport.

Laser Radial: women's singlehanded dinghy

The Laser Radial uses the same hull as the Laser, but carries a smaller, differently cut sail featuring a shorter lower mast section. It replaced the Europe (introduced for the 2000 Olympics as the first women's singlehanded dinghy class) at the 2008 Athens Olympics.

Nacra 17: mixed multihull class

The Morrelli & Melvin-designed Nacra 17 is new for 2016 and the first specific 'mixed' class (see Multihull and skiff Olympic recommendations announced). It was designed specifically for the 2016 Olympic multihull spot. It features wave-piercing hulls, which have less drag, creating a more constant high speed than conventional designs, and it is light and stiff making it more responsive and able to perform in a wider wind range. It has a powerfull carbon mast and modern sails. It also has curved dagger boards to reduce drag and promote earlier flying of the hull. Curved boards also reduces sheet loads, and make crew weight less critical – ideal for a mixed class.

Olympic sailing: windsurfing class.

The same windsurfing boards are used for men and women, the women's discipline featuring a smaller sail. Photo OnEdition.

RS:X: men's windsurfer

Windsurfing was first introduced for the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games. The RS:X became the Olympic class for the 2008 Athens Olympics, and survived an attempt to replace the discipline with kitesurfing for 2016. It is a specifically developed hybrid board, designed to race in a variety of wind conditions. A high-performance rig features a carbon boom and mast, and in light airs you will see the sailors actively 'pumping' the sail to gain forward momentum, something that is illegal in some other sailing disciplines.

RS:X: women's windsurfer

A women's windsurfing class was begun in 1992 for the Barcelona Olympics, with the RS:X introduced in 2008. The women's board is the same, just with a smaller rig.

This photo captures the medal race sailing at the 2012 Olympic Games, as a 49er races close to the crowds.

This photo captures the medal race sailing at the 2012 Olympic Games, as a 49er races close to the crowds. Photo OnEdition.


Olympic sailing competition format

The format for Olympic Sailing has varied over the years, including match racing competitions where competitors race head-to-head and are knocked out. In recent years, the competition format has altered, moving towards a combination of full fleet racing and special 'medal races' where the top 10 ranked teams compete in final double-points races to decide the medals.

Competitors collect points during the series of races based on a 'low point scoring system' (one point for first, two for second, etc). There are added complications in that after a certain number of races are sailed a 'discard' is allowed – meaning you can drop your worst result of the series. This has traditionally been used in sailing competitions to ensure gear failure doesn't completely ruin a competitor's chance of winning. Medal races are not discardable, and the points earned in that race are added to the total at the end of the series.


Olympic Sailing courses

Olympic sailing courses vary slightly depending on the class, but will generally follow a 'trapezoid', 'windward-leeward' or 'slalom' format, aiming to test each point of sail. Boats are usually sent upwind for the first leg of the course, with the finish usually being downwind.


Olympic sailing trapezoid course.

A trapezoid course.


Olympic sailing windward-leeward course.

A windward-leeward course.


Olympic sailing: A windsurfing course including a 'slalom' leg.

A windsurfing course including a 'slalom' leg.


Sailing at the 2016 Olympic Games

The 2016 Olympic Sailing Regatta will take place from August 5-21 in Rio de Janerio, Brazil. Marina da Gloria in Guanabara Bay is the venue for the Rio 2016 Olympic Sailing Competition. The Bay is already well known as a world-class sailing venue: in 2009 it was a stopover venue for the Volvo Ocean Race; whilst in 2007 it was the sailing venue for the Pan American Games. Read our feature on Sailing at the 2016 Rio Olympics.


Olympic Sailing trivia

Brazilians Robert Scheidt and Torben Grael and Briton Ben Ainslie are the most medalled sailors in the Olympic Games, with five medals each. Ainslie, though, won gold four times. On the women’s side, Italian windsurfer Alessandra Sensini has four medals to her name, followed by fellow windsurfer Barbara Kendall from New Zealand and Ukrainian 470 sailor Ruslana Taran with three each.

The Games in London 2012 marked the first time the United States did not win a single medal in Olympic sailing. However Jen French, 41, a quadriplegic and her crew Jean-Paul Creignou, 57 who’s legally blind, won the silver medal for the U.S. in the Skud 18 class at the Paralympic Games.

The United States is still the most successful sailing nation in Olympic Sailing with 59 medals overall, but the Brits hold the edge in the number of gold medals awarded. See medal tally below.

Olympic sailing medal table

The breakdown of Medal Tallies from All-Time and London 2012.

For more on the 2016 Olympics see Sailing at the 2016 Rio Olympics and UK Olympic Sailing medal predictions 2016.


Written by: Gael Pawson
Gael Pawson is the editor of Yachts & Yachting Magazine and the founder of Creating Waves. A keen racer, she has sailed all her life, and started writing about the subject whilst studying journalism at university. Dinghies and small keelboats are her first loves, but she has cruised and raced a huge variety of boats in locations across the world.