Yachting has been an Olympic sport since 1900, although with a name change to Olympic sailing in 2000. All Olympic races are held by class in which competitors race each other in identical boats in a fleet race. Generally, the smaller and simpler boats are the least expensive, and so have the larger world following, leading to larger Olympic fleets. Sailboard fleets have had over 50 countries competing.
The first Olympic yachting races held were in 1900, in France, at Meulan and Le Havre, when seven classes (1/2, 1/2-1, 1-2, 2-3, 3-10, 10-20 tons, and open) were raced. Only six nations (France, Germany, Great Britain, Netherlands, Switzerland, and the United States) competed,perhaps because the events had been announced only four months before the Games. No yachting events were held at the 1904 St. Louis Games, but the sport was back on the program in 1908 and has remained an Olympic sport ever since.
In 1908,most Olympic events were held in London, but sailing venues were Ryde, on the Isle of Wight, for most classes, and on the Clyde in Scotland, for the 12- meter event. Five classes were used (6, 7, 8, 12, and 15 meters) and five nations took part. There were no entries for the 15-meter class; only one 7-meter entry, which had among the crew Frances Rivett-Carnac,who thus became the first Olympic yachtswoman; and both 12 meters had British crews. In 1912, races were held for 6-, 8-, 10-, and 12-meter boats, with a total of 21 boats from five nations.
In 1920, Olympic yachting began to have small boat (dinghy) racing, which has continued in some form ever since. An astonishing 14 classes raced. Seven classes had only one entrant, and this created a major move toward the use of one-design classes (where all boats in the fleet are of the same type and exactly alike) from 1924 on. In 1924, a 12-foot Voetsjol class became the first Olympic single-hander, and 6- and 8-meter boats were also raced.
In 1932, in Los Angeles, the Star class was raced for the first time. It remained an Olympic class until 1996. Other classes were the Snowbird (a single-hander, each of which was provided by the organizing committee, and exchanged after each race among the 11 competitors), and the 6 and 8 meter. In 1936, in Kiel, the Olympia-Jolle replaced the Snowbird as the singlehander. A total of 26 nations raced 59 boats.
Following the canceled Olympics of 1940 and 1944, the 1948 Games began to look more like modern racing. The classes were Firefly,Dragon, Star, Swallow, and 6 meter. The courses were, for the first time, started into the wind. Seventy-five boats competed.
In 1952, the Finn made its first appearance as the single-hander, replacing the Firefly. Finns remain an Olympic class to this day. The same classes (Finn, Flying Dutchman, Star, Dragon, and 5.5 meter) were used in 1960, 1964, and 1968.
Communication with onshore coaches (whether by shouting or over radio) was banned in 1964, and semiprofessional sailors-people who made their living as sail makers-began to dominate events. In 1972, the Soling and Tempest joined the competition classes,and the 5.5 meter was dropped.
The lack of correlation between Olympic classes and classes most popular with the general public showed some correction in 1976 when the classes raced at Kingston on Lake Ontario, Canada, were Finn, Flying Dutchman, 470, Soling, Tempest, and Tornado (the first catamaran raced in the Olympics). The Star came back in 1980 to replace the Tempest, but yachting was more seriously affected than most sports in the boycott of that year because the events were held at Tallinn, in Estonia, which several countries refused to recognize as being part of the Soviet Union. The number of boats, 53,was the lowest since 1956.
In Los Angeles in 1984, an entirely new type of sailing was added: sailboarding. Other classes remained the same. This idea was extended to a women-only class of sailboarders in 1992 and a women’s single-hander, the Europe,was added to the men’s Finn. For 1996, the classes were Europe (women), Finn (men), Laser, 470 (men), 470 (women), sailboard (men), sailboard (women), Soling (men and women), Star (men and women), and Tornado (men and women). Of the eight different classes, two are keelboats, one is a catamaran, one is a sailboard, and four are centerboard dinghies, which closely approximates to world popularity of the various types of racing boats.
The large number of recreational boaters suggests that yachting, as an Olympic event or other race, will remain popular.