All 10 Olympic sailing events are contested in fleet races – meaning a group of boats race against each other with the first boat to cross the finish line is named the winner. For each of these classes, competition consists of an opening series and a medal race. A total of 120 races including medal races will take place.

Men's and women's RS:X, 49er, 49erFX and the mixed Nacra 17 will have 12 opening series races plus a medal race each, totaling 65 races for these five classes. Men's and women's 470, men's Laser, women's Laser Radial and men's Finn each have 10 opening series races plus a medal race totaling 55 races.

After each race of the opening series, a boat is given a score based on when it crosses the finish line (first = one point, second = two, third = three, etc.). At the end of the opening series, the ten boats with the lowest scores advance to the medal race. Sailors may exclude their worst score in the first 10 or 12 races.

After completing 10 or 12 races, the top ten boats with the lowest score go on to compete in the medal race. The points scored in the medal race cannot be excluded and are worth double.