Sailing first appeared in the Olympics in 1900 in Paris, but took a break in 1904 after which it has appeared on the menu for every Olympic Games. The sport was called Yachting throughout the twentieth century, and has only been given the title Sailing since the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney. Women have always been able to take part in the sport, with separate women’s events making their debut at the Seoul Olympic Games in 1988.
Sailing events in the earlier twentieth century were dominated by big boats, often with several sailors. There was a gradual move - as sailing technology improved - towards smaller boats, including one-person craft.
The London Olympics of 1908 saw sailing events at Ryde (Isle of Wight) and at Hunter’s Quay (on the River Clyde). Great Britain gained a host of medals – the only other countries to gain medals being Belgium, Sweden and France - though this may largely have been due to the fact that at the time it was not seen as practical to bring overseas boats to the Games. In contrast the London 1948 Olympics boasted medal winners from nine countries including Cuba, Portugal and the USA. Great Britain’s only sailing achievement at these games was Gold in the Swallow class – won by Stewart Morris and David Bond.
Great Britain is surrounded by water; her inhabitants are used to inclement weather; thus it is not surprising that her sailors have done well in Olympic medal tables. Radio 4’s The Shipping Forecast - updating ships travelling British seas four times a day on weather and sea conditions – is a national institution.
English sailing success is not just confined to Olympic competition – for instance the inspirational Ellen MacArthur came second in the Vendee Globe round the world sailing race in 2001 when she was just 24 years old. Her early focus and steely determination to be a success at her sport seems similar to the drive of Shirley Robertson OBE. Robertson won Olympic sailing Golds at Sydney in 2000 and Athens in 2004, a unique achievement as no British woman had previously achieved Gold medals at consecutive Olympic Games.
London 2012 Olympic sailing events take place at Weymouth and Portland, with six men’s and four women’s events, divided in to classes depended on type and size of boat. Ben Ainslie, three times Olympic Gold medal winner, heads the British team. Ainslie was one of a crop of sailing medal winners at the 2008 Beijing Olympics who included:
- Ben Ainsley (Finn – heavyweight dinghy)
- Paul Goodison (Laser – one person dinghy)
- Iain Percy and Andrew Simpson (Star – keelboat)
- Sarah Ayton, Sarah Webb and Pippa Wilson (Yngling – keelboat).
London 2012, in waters that the Great Britain sailing team are likely to know better than their competitors, provides an opportunity for British sailors, male and female, to add to an already impressive collection of Olympic medals.
If you are interested in finding out more about Olympic sailing successes you may enjoy Sailing Gold: Great Moments in Olympic Sailing History. If you are interested in learning more about the unique achievements of a woman who has mastered long distance sailing try Ellen MacArthur’s highly readable autobiography, Taking On The World. I have provided links to both books below.