Sailing has a strong history in the modern Olympic Games dating to the beginning of the 20th century. (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 sailed, and the event formats. Today's competition no longer makes use of keelboats, and its competitions are entirely made up of lightweight dinghies, windsurfers and cataramans. Recent Olympic sailing regattas have moved increasingly towards competition within high-speed racers sailing on shorter courses, thereby adding to the spectacle for those watching.

The 2016 Olympic Sailing races will be held in Rio de Janeiro's Guanabara Bay. Olympic-class 470s are shown racing here in 2015. Photo: Jesus Renedo/Sailing Energy/ISAF.

The 2016 Olympic Sailing races will be held in Rio de Janeiro's Guanabara Bay. Olympic-class 470s are shown racing here in 2015. Photo: Jesus Renedo/Sailing Energy/ISAF.


In the early years of Olympic sailing, things were different, and competition was mostly 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 tons.

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

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

In the early years of Olympic sailing, there were no restrictions on the number of entries per country, giving home nations an advantage. In 1900, France won all three medals in the Half-Ton 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- to 1-ton 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 Meter 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 sailors' skill than on the design of their individual boats. The Star keelboat, which made a record 19th appearance in the London 2012 Olympic Games, debuted 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 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

There weren't many competitors in 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, known as the "Austerity Games," which took place right after World War II, saw the birth of a legend, when 19-year-old Dane 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 that wasn't equaled 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 a bit more accessible. Competition gradually got tougher with bigger fleets and more countries on the entry list.

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

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

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 fiberglass 470 dinghy and the multihull Tornado in a bid to modernize the Games. It was the beginning of a move that would end in a total dinghy lineup for the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio.

In 1988, the first women’s class was introduced, with the 470 being split into two separate events for men and women. The USA’s Lynne Jewell and Alison Jolly won the first women’s gold medal. The next Olympic Games, Barcelona 1992, saw the introduction of two more women's classes for windsurfing and singlehanded dinghy sailing, by which time there were 10 classes in total. By 2000, there was an all-time high of 11 classes for the Sydney Olympic Games, but 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 maximize 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.


The current Olympic Sailing line-up comprises 10 classes. The 2016 Olympic Games in Rio will be the first Olympics without a keelboat class, after the Elliot 6M and Star classes lost their Olympic status following London 2012. The classes are as follows.

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 set when sailing 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 maximize 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 that both men and women could compete, although female competitors, especially helms, were rare.

49er: men's skiff

The 49er, a twin-trapeze, high-performance skiff, 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 in strong winds can happen to the best teams, 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, introduced as a women's skiff class for 2016 after competitors had campaigned for many years for an exciting female-specific class. Its selection followed extensive trails (see Mackay FX 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. Danish sailor Paul Elvstrøm won the first gold medal in the class that year, 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.

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

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

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. It's a relatively simple dinghy, built to strict design specifications so that the boats are very close to identical, and certainly much more so than the boats in most classes. It 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 have since 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) for the 2008 Athens Olympics.

Nacra 17: mixed multihull class

The Morrelli & Melvin-designed Nacra 17 catamaran 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. It's also light and stiff, making it more responsive and able to perform in a wider wind range. It has a powerful carbon mast and modern sails. It also has curved daggerboards to reduce drag and promote earlier flying of the windward hull. Curved boards also reduce sheet loads, and mean that crew weight is less critical – ideal for a mixed class.

RS:X: men's windsurfer

Windsurfing was first introduced for the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games. The RS:X was selected for the 2008 Athens Olympics, and it survived an attempt to displace it with a kitesurfing event for 2016. It's 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 winds, you will see the sailors actively "pumping" the sail to gain forward momentum, something that is illegal in many other sailing disciplines.

RS:X: women's windsurfer

A women's windsurfing class was introduced in 1992 for the Barcelona Olympics, with the RS:X introduced in 2008. The women's board is the same as the men's, but it carries a smaller, less powerful sailplan.

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

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


The format for Olympic Sailing has varied over the years, including match racing competitions where sailors race head-to-head and are knocked out. In recent years, the competition format has changed, 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 and not count your worst result of the series. This has traditionally been used in sailing competitions to ensure that 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 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.

A trapezoid course.

A trapezoid course.

A windsurfing course including a slalom leg.

A windsurfing course including a slalom leg.


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, while in 2007 in was the sailing venue for the Pan American Games. Watch for our full preview of the 2016 competition.

Note: This guide was originally published on