Sailing dates back millenia. In the 15th and 16th centuries, European countries developed navigation techniques which aided their discovery of distant lands. Alongside Portugal, Spain and England, one of the leading maritime powers was the Netherlands – and it was there that sailing first arose as a sport.
Occupying colonies in the Americas and Africa, very far from home, the Dutch needed to find a way to transport goods more rapidly and safely. As a result, they created the jaghtstchipt, a vessel that, aside from its economic importance, was also of great value to sailors, who now had better equipment with which to face the high seas.
While he was exiled in the Netherlands, King Charles II of England became a fan of the vessel, called jaght for short (hence the word yacht in English). He proposed improvement in the design and even developed other boats. In the late 1660s, he organised the first regattas in British waters.
In 1720, the Royal Cork Yacht Club was founded in Ireland – the oldest sailing club in the world. However, it was only in 1851 that the first international sailing race was held, between England and the United States, around the Isle of Wight. This race gave rise to the America’s Cup, which is held to this day. Since then, the sport of sailing has spread across the world.
The sport’s popularity made it a part of the Olympic programme at the 1896 Games, the first of the modern era. However, bad weather in Athens meant that Olympic sailing only actually started four years later, at the Paris 1900 Games. Women began to compete as crew members at the 1908 Games in London, and women’s events have been held since the Seoul 1988 Games.
With the exception of 1904, sailing has always featured in the Olympic programme, with different classes, which have evolved in line with the technology used in boats. To standardise the rules, the International Yacht Racing Union was founded in 1907. In 1996, this organisation changed its name to International Sailing Federation (ISAF).
There are boats for just one sailor, such as the Laser, and others for two, such as the 470. The Olympic Games use standardised classes of vessels, meaning that boats in the same class are identical in terms of their hull measurements and other specifications. This means that sailors have to use their own technical prowess to gain higher speeds. Characteristics such as weight also count: very light sailors tend not to perform well in classes such as the Finn, where a lot of strength is demanded.
Each Olympic event is divided into a series of regattas, for which points are awarded in line with a vessel's finishing position: at each regatta, the winner gains one point, two points are given for second place, and so on. These points are added up, and the 10 best-ranking competitors go through to the final regatta (medal race). Unlike in most competitions, the champion is the individual or team with the lowest total score.