Sailing was part of the programme for the first modern Olympic Games in Athens in 1896. Unfortunately, the weather intervened, and the sailors had to wait for the 1900 games in Paris to make their Olympic debut. This included sailing on the River Seine. Sailing was omitted from the Olympic Games in 1904, but returned in London in 1908 – and has featured ever since.
In the early years, mainly nobility and royalty raced in sailboats. Often, there were only a few boats on the starting line. Sometimes, there was just one boat in a given class, and all the sailors had to do to claim an Olympic gold was parade down the course to finish line. In those times, the sailing classes show that sailing was not just for anyone; some classes required heavy 12-metre boats with 10-man crews.
After World War II, dinghies and smaller keelboats were added to the Olympic programme, and the sailing events began to look more like those we know today. Paul Elvstrøm, a young Danish yachtsman, helped to revolutionise the sport. He arrived at the Olympic Games in London in 1948 as a well-trained athlete, who could hang out of the side of his Firefly and so hold the best course. Elvstrøm won four Olympic gold medals between 1948 and 1960, and played a pioneering role in transforming sailing into a modern elite sport that places major physical and technical demands on athletes.
Over the past two decades, Olympic sailing has developed into an ever more spectacular sport with higher speeds and more action. Classic keelboats such as the Soling and Star have been replaced by new and more TV-friendly high-performance boats, such as the 49er and 49erFX, and the Nacra 17 – a recently developed catamaran that uses hydrofoils to raise its hulls free of the water at high speeds. But the Olympic programme still includes classic dinghies, such as the 470, Laser/Laser Radial and Finn. There is also windsurfing, represented by the RS:X class for men and women. In total, there are ten sailing classes at the Olympics, five for men, four for women and one mixed.
Outside the Olympic Games, there is only one event in which all ten Olympic sailing classes are represented: the Sailing World Championships. The first official Sailing World Championships was held in Cadiz in Spain in 2003, and it has been held every four years ever since. In 2018, the ten Olympic sailing classes are coming to Paul Elvstrøm’s home country of Denmark, and there are more than World Championship medals at stake. Forty per cent of the national team places for the Olympic Games in Tokyo 2020 will be decided at the Hempel Sailing World Championships 2018. The world’s leading sailing nations will therefore field their best possible crews when the event kicks off in the Bay of Aarhus on 30 July.