Windsurfing, Kitesurfing & Sailing

Sailing In The Rio 2016 Olympics: A Brief History Of The Sport

Sailing has been a part of the Olympics since 1900 but it hasn't always been plain cruising. Here's our quick guide to the history of the sport...

Sailors have been competing in the Olympics since 1900. Photo: iStock

Sailing has been used for travel and fishing since the prehistoric times. It wasn’t considered a sport until the early 17th century when the Dutch started racing 65 foot yachts for fun.

Charles II was given a yacht by the Dutch and the sport quickly caught on in England followed by America. During this time, the idea of the yacht club was founded – as a place for sailors to socialise. The first yacht club was founded in 1720 in Cork, Ireland.

The New York Yacht Club was founded in 1844. After racing locally for a few years, they decided to take their races internationally. In 1851, the USA raced Great Britain around the Isle of Wight. The Americans won and decided to name their trophy – and the race – the America’s Cup. Today it’s the oldest international sailing race in the world.

The very first sailing event at the Olympic Games held in Paris, 1900. Photo via. Wikipedia

Sailing made its first appearance at the Olympic Games in 1900 (it was supposed to be introduced at the 1896 Olympics but was called off due to bad weather). It took place on the River Seine, 32km away from the Paris centre where the rest of the sports were held.

There were no restrictions on the number of boats each country could enter, so France won three medals in the œ tonne class and Great Britain won gold in the œ-1 tonne class and in the ‘open class’.

It wasn’t until 1907 that the world governing body for sailing was set up. It was called the International Yacht Racing Union and their primary focus was to avoid collisions during racing. They went on to make a uniform set of rules for all regattas. In 1996, the name changed to International Sailing Federation (ISAF).

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The 1908 Olympics were held in London with the sailing taking place between the Isle of Wight and Scotland (for the bigger 12-metre class boats). There were five classes 6, 7, 8, 12, and 15-metres. 13 boats took part overall.

There was only one boat in the 7-metre class and none in the 15-metre class. By 1920, there was a gradual move towards one-design classes to even up the racing. Great Britain won every single race.

It wasn’t until 1968, however, that yachting really took off as an Olympic sport as more boats were entered than ever before and the sport became more competitive.

The 1936 Olympics underway in Germany. Photo: IOC

Yachting was very much seen as a luxury sport for the wealthy for first half of the 20th century. However, by the mid 20th century, new materials such as plywood meant dinghies could be made lighter and stronger than ever before. Construction of boats became easier and cheaper, which allowed a whole new range of people to try the sport.

By the 1960s, boat builders were launching new designs nearly every month. The rise of fibreglass meant boats could be lighter and faster than ever before.

In 1964, Bill Northam, a 59 year-old grandfather of five from Australia, won gold in the 5.5 metre class, making him Australia’s oldest Olympic gold medallist. After totting up enough points, he skipped the final race and celebrated by drinking a lot of vodka – before climbing on top of the podium.

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Women-only events were introduced in the Olympics for the first time in 1988. Allison Jolley and L. Jewell from the USA won the first Olympic gold in sailing for women in a 470 dinghy.

For the first time in history, the Olympic harbour was part of the Olympic village in 1992 Games in Barcelona, Spain. Two extra women’s races were also added this year – included the women’s windsurfing event.

Interestingly, sailing is one of only two Olympic sports where men and women compete against each other – the other is equestrian.

Racing at the London 2012 Olympics in Weymouth, UK. Photo via. Wikipedia

By 1996, there were 56 sailors from 56 countries competing in the Laser class at the Olympics, an unprecedented number of competitors.

The Sydney Olympics in 2000 presented a perfect opportunity to show off the sport inside the world’s biggest natural harbour, right at the heart of the city centre. The 49er class was introduced for the first time here and nation’s flags were also printed on the sails for the first time.

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Ben Ainslie from Great Britain and Brazilian pair Robert Scheidt and Torben Grael have the most Olympic sailing medals of all time.

Today there are six classes at the Olympics, not including windsurfing – 470, 49er, Finn, Laser, Laser Radial and Nacra 17. At Rio 2016, there will be 270 sailors from 62 countries.

After a long and varied history, it’s great to see that the sport still continues strong in the Olympic Games and beyond.

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