Fast Facts: Sailing in the Olympics

PARIS一 It’s off to the races for the competitors in the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo. The games kicked off July 23 and the sailing events began on July 25. Sailing is one of the oldest sports on the Olympic program and its Olympic history includes some of the sporting world’s great figures.

The ancient version of the Games was first held in Greece around 776 BC as a tribute to Zeus, the god of sky and thunder. In 1894 the idea was put forward to resurrect the concept of the games by French historian and academic Baron Pierre de Coubertin. On June 16, 1894, the first Olympic Congress was declared open in the auditorium of the Sorbonne University in Paris and the desire was expressed for nautical sports – rowing, sailing, and swimming – to be on the Olympic program.

The first modern Games, held in Athens, Greece as a tribute to its roots, were held two years later in 1896. Sailing was on the program, but rain, heavy winds, and powerful waves that knocked lighter vessels onshore created conditions unsafe for competition in Phaleron Bay, according to the NBC Olympics website.

Sailing was first contested at the 1900 Olympic Games and the competition included cash prizes for the winners in an era in which athletes were supposed to be competing for the love of sport, not money, according to the NBC Olympics website. The yachting competition also featured more than one final for each class and an adjustment of the times for each vessel based on the weight of its crew.

Sailing made its next Olympic appearance in 1908 and has been on every Olympic program since that year.

It wouldn’t be until 1988 that women would be included in the event. At the International Olympic Committee Executive Board meeting held in July and August of 1984 in Los Angeles, it was decided to add the 470-dinghy event for women to the program of the Games in Seoul, Korea in 1988.

There have been many other notable moments in Olympic sailing over the years. The following are a couple of moments that come from the NBC Olympics website.

Los Angeles, 1932: At the helm of his vessel Angelita, Owen Churchill led his crew to victory in the 8-meter competition for America’s first-ever Olympic sailing medal. The Los Angeles native went on to patent the first rubber swim fin in 1940. These fins were later used in World War II by British and U.S. frogmen, and by recreational swimmers for decades to come. His boat was restored for the 1984 Los Angeles Games, with Churchill back at the flagship for the sailing events in Long Beach.

Tokyo, 1964: Australia’s Bill Northam won the 5.5-meter class on his yacht, the Barrenjoey. A grandfather of five, Northam was, at age 59, the oldest Australian Olympic gold medalist and his country’s first in the sport. After running up a dominant point total, Northam disqualified himself from the meaningless final race and celebrated his victory by quaffing several glasses of vodka – an act, he later admitted, that left him a tad wobbly atop the medal stand.

Atlanta, 1996: Boardsailer Lee Lai-Shan won Hong Kong’s first-ever Olympic medal in the colony’s 44-year history of competing at the Games. Lai-Shan won the women’s Mistral-class over pre-race favorite and 1992 gold medalist Barbara Kendall of New Zealand. She also racked up more than $1 million in endorsements after her victory.

Beijing, 2008: The ISAF has called the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games a landmark Olympics for the sport of sailing. It was the first time the medal race format was used at the Games, featuring the top ten competitors competing in a final double-points race. It was also the first time China won a sailing medal when Jian Yin took women’s RS:X gold. Italy’s Alessandra Sensini became the first female sailor to earn four Olympic medals. Lithuania took home its first-ever Olympic sailing medal when Gintare Volungeviciute claimed silver in Laser Radial. While Great Britain led the medal tally with six, the U.S. took home two medals – Zach Railey’s silver in the Finn and Anna Tunnicliffe’s gold in Laser Radial’s Olympic debut.

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