Skip to main content

Sailing 101: Olympic history

© 1936 / International Olympic Committee (IOC)

Sailing 101: Olympic history

Learn more on the history of Olympic sailing.

Athens, 1896: Sailing was on the program for the Games. But rain, heavy winds and powerful waves that knocked lighter vessels on shore created conditions unsafe for competition in Phaleron Bay. As explained in the official program, "the elements continued with such fury that every idea of a boat race had to be given up." Thus, the first Olympic regatta was cancelled.

Paris, 1900: The first regatta of the modern Games didn't exactly live up to the ideals of amateurism in sport set forth by Baron de Coubertin. The competition included cash prizes for the winners in an era in which athletes were supposed to be competing for the love of sport, not money. The yachting competition also featured more than one final for each class and an adjustment of the times for each vessel based on the weight of its crew.

London, 1908: Most sailing events at the London Games were held off the Isle of Wight's seaside resort of Ride, approximately 72 miles south of London in the English Channel. Great Britain won every race in the regatta. The one event not held in England is the 12-meter, which was staged in Scotland at the Firth of Clyde and was won by a crew of Scotsmen, who at the time represented Great Britain.

Antwerp, 1920: The first two races in the 12-foot dinghy class, the predecessor to the present-day Finn, were staged in Oostende on the North Sea, just 60 miles west of Antwerp. But after a dispute over the course, the final two races were rescheduled for two months later and more than 150 miles away – in Amsterdam, Netherlands. It marked the first time an official Olympic event was contested outside the host country. The only other time came in 1956, when the equestrian events took place in Stockholm, Sweden, rather than in Melbourne, as the result of strict Australian quarantine laws.

Los Angeles, 1932: At the helm of his aptly-christened boat "Angelita," Owen Churchill led his crew to victory in the 8-meter competition for America's first-ever Olympic sailing medal. Churchill later went on to win several non-Olympic championships in the Star class, but he made a bigger impact in the water than atop it. The Los Angeles native patented the first rubber swim fin in 1940. These fins were later used in World War II by British and U.S. frogmen, and by recreational swimmers for decades to come. His boat was restored for the 1984 Los Angeles Games, with Churchill back at the flagship for the sailing events in Long Beach.

London, 1948: Paul Elvstrom of Denmark made his Olympic debut, winning the first of four consecutive gold medals in the Finn class. Elvstrom, who was a reserve in 1964 and also competed in 1968 and 1972, returned to the Games in Los Angeles in 1984 to crew for his daughter in the Tornado class. He also participated in the Seoul Games, 40 years after his London debut.

Rome, 1960: With the 1960 Olympic competition taking place in Naples, the Soviet Union won its first gold medal in sailing, a sport considered the domain of the capitalist elite. The team of Timir Pinegin and Fyodor Shutkov easily outscored their Portuguese and American competition in the Star class on their craft, the Tornado, which was built in Old Greenwich, Conn.

Tokyo, 1964: Australia's Bill Northam won the 5.5-meter class on his yacht, the Barrenjoey. A grandfather of five, Northam was, at age 59, the oldest Australian Olympic gold medalist and his country's first in the sport. After running up a dominant point total, Northam disqualified himself from the meaningless final race and celebrated his victory by quaffing several glasses of vodka – an act, he later admitted, that left him a tad wobbly atop the medal stand.

Munich, 1972: Returning to Kiel, 400 miles from Munich on the Baltic Sea and site of the 1936 Olympic regatta, the 1972 sailing competition had a royal flavor. Spain's Crown Prince Juan Carlos – who ascended to the throne in 1975 – finished 15th in the Dragon class. Norway's Crown Prince Harald placed 10th in Soling.

Montreal, 1976: The 1976 Olympic sailing competition was held on Lake Ontario some 170 miles from Montreal. There, 33-year-old American Dennis Conner – who later gained fame as a skipper in the America's Cup – sailed to a bronze medal in the now-defunct, two-person Tempest class, which was only contested at the Munich and Montreal Games.

Los Angeles, 1984: Paul Elvstrom, 36 years after winning the first of his four gold medals in the Finn class, returned for the 1984 Games at age 56 with his daughter, Tine. The duo finished fourth in the Tornado catamaran class in Long Beach. Elvstrom, who also had his daughter crew for him in Seoul, is one of four athletes to compete in eight or more Olympics.

Seoul, 1988: During his fifth race in the Finn competition, which was held concurrently with the fifth race of the men's 470, Canada's Laurence Lemieux noticed that Singapore's Joseph Chan, a 470 entrant, had been tossed from his boat. Lemieux, in second place in his race at the time, left the course to rescue Chan. According to Lemieux, Chan "was obviously desperate. ... It was just one of those decisions." Later, Lemieux was given a second-place finish in his race. He ultimately placed 10th overall in the Finn competition.

Barcelona, 1992: At the Barcelona Games, Spain claimed four sailing gold medals and five overall, an output second only to the United States. Spanish sailors won the Flying Dutchman, the men's 470, men's Finn and the women's 470. Perhaps more interesting was the list of Spanish yachtsman who did not ascend to the podium. Skipper Fernando Leon finished sixth in Soling with Spain's future king, Crown Prince Felipe, on his crew. Felipe at least found solace in that he outperformed his father, King Juan Carlos I, who competed in the Dragon class at the 1972 Olympics and finished 15th.

Atlanta, 1996: Boardsailer Lee Lai-Shan won Hong Kong's first-ever Olympic medal in the colony's 44-year history of competing at the Games. Many of Hong Kong's six million residents stayed up until 5 a.m. to watch Lee, nicknamed "San San," win the women's Mistral class over pre-race favorite and 1992 gold medalist Barbara Kendall of New Zealand. Winning had its rewards for Lee, who racks up more than $1 million in endorsements after her victory.

Sydney, 2000: After winning the men's Mistral event in Sydney, giving land-locked Austria its second sailing gold of the Games, Christoph Sieber reflected on his preparation, which included workouts with Olympic champion skier and countryman Hermann Maier. "I knew I had to work extensively in the physical area, so Hermann Maier and myself were pounding the weights. ... It's made me much stronger, and that's the secret for me."

Athens, 2004: In 12 previous Games dating to 1952, Israel had won only one silver and three bronze medals and its Olympic legacy was primarily somber – political complications, occassional snubs by athletes from Islamic countries, and, overshadowing all else, the killing of 11 athletes and coaches who were seized by a Palastinian terrorist group called Black September at the 1972 Games in Munich. But windsurfer Gal Fridman, whose first name means "wave" in Hebrew, gave Israel its first gold medal, winning men's Mistral. Fridman sailed a remarkably consistent regatta, never finishing worse than eighth in the 11-race series. After crossing the finish line, he took a victory plunge in the Saronic Gulf and then wrapped himself in the Israeli flag when he came out of the water.

Beijing, 2008: The ISAF has called the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games a landmark Olympics for the sport of sailing.  It was the first time the medal race format was used at the Games.  It was also the first time China won a sailing medal, when Jian Yin took women's RS:X gold.  Italy's Alessandra Sensini became the first female sailor to earn four Olympic medals and Great Britain's Ben Ainslie won his impressive third consecutive gold medal.  Lithuania took home its first ever Olympic sailing medal when Gintare Volungeviciute claimed silver in Laser Radial.  While Great Britain led the medal tally with six, the U.S. took home two medals – Zach Railey's silver in the Finn and Anna Tunnicliffe's gold in Laser Radial's Olympic debut.

London, 2012: There is no doubt that the Australian's were shouting "Aussie, Aussie, Aussie! Oi, oi, oi!" in London. Australia's Tom Slingsby (Laser), Mathew Belcher, teammate Malcom Page (470), Nathan Outteridge and teammate Iain Jensen (49er) all won gold in their respective events. Australia's Olivia Price, Nina Curtis, and Lucinda Whitty won silver in the women's Elliott 6m. Although, Australia took home four total medals (three gold and one silver), it was the rivaling British that outnumbered their medal count with five (four silver and one gold). Great Britain's Ben Ainslie became the most decorated Olympic sailor of all time, Pavlos Kontides won Cyprus' first-ever Olympic medal with silver in the Laser. China's Xu Lijia took home gold in the women's Laser Radial marking China's second medal in sailing. Spain's women had an impressive performance taking home two gold medals, one in the women's RS:X and the other in the inaugural women's Elliot 6m. 

More from {{firstLevel.more_from}}

{{firstLevel.data.roofline_text}}

{{firstLevel.data.title}}

{{firstLevel.data.short_desc}}

See More Coverage

More from {{secondLevel.more_from}}

More from Olympics

+