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