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Olympic History

women's match racing from 2012 london olympics

1900 – 1936 From the very first Olympic regatta to the last Olympic games before World War II

The first Olympic regatta was held on the River Seine at Paris 1900, following the birth of the modern Olympics in Athens in 1896. Britain won five medals - the first of 50 Olympic sailing medals the nation has won in total. 

It wasn’t until the first London Games in 1908 that the sport became a permanent Olympic fixture. These Games also saw Scotland host its first and only Olympic event when the 12m class was contested between just two entries - an English boat, Mouchette, and a Scottish entry, Hera – on the River Clyde. Hera won the historic series. 

Britain didn’t compete at Stockholm 1912 while Berlin 1916 was cancelled due to World War I. 

Ton and Metre classes dominated the early years but at Antwerp 1920 dinghies (12ft and 18ft) were raced for the first time. 

Few competitors contested Olympic yachting during this era and only those of independent means. However it wasn’t unusual for women to compete. Brits Frances Rivett-Carnac (1908 London) and Dorothy Wright (1920 Antwerp) won Olympic titles with their husbands. 

Berlin 1936 was the last Games before World War II broke out in 1939. 

1940 - 1944 The impact of World War II on sport across the world

No Olympic Games took place due to World War II. 

1948 - 1956 From the resumption of the Olympic games, through to the 1956 Melbourne Olympics

‘The Austerity Games’ of London 1948 signalled the resumption of Olympic competition. 

The fleet of 78 sailors in Torquay was then the biggest Olympic sailing fleet ever. The Swallow class gold won by David Bond and Stewart Morris provided the British highlight. 

London 1948 also saw the debut of the most successful Olympic sailor of all-time – Denmark’s Paul Elvstrøm. He won Firefly gold, the first of four consecutive golds, and over 40 years went on to appear at an incredible eight Olympics. 

Competition during this era was strictly amateur - sailors had full-time careers and Olympic sailing was a hobby. Competition got tougher with bigger fleets. Britain won five medals between 1948 and 1956, compared to 16 between 1900 and 1936. 

Helsinki 1952 saw the Olympic debut of the Finn class, with Charles Currey winning Britain’s only sailing medal, taking silver behind Elvstrøm. 

Melbourne 1956 provided different challenges altogether not least getting there! 

Bluebottle, a Dragon class boat given to The Queen and The Duke of Edinburgh as a wedding gift in 1948, won bronze while there were also British medals in the 12m2 Sharpie (bronze) and 5.5m (silver) classes. 

1960 - 1964 The East and West aligned their Olympic gold medal success with global status

Medals may have been in short supply for Britain at Rome 1960 and Tokyo 1964 but these Games witnessed the emergence of a number of men, not least Vernon Stratton, Keith Musto and Robin Aisher, whose lasting legacy was arguably more significant. 

Stratton finished 12th on his Olympic debut in the Finn class in Rome but his experience shaped him indelibly and as RYA Olympic Manager for Mexico 1968 and Munich 1972 he orchestrated a revolution in approach and professionalism still seen in today’s set-up. 

Musto, with Tony Morgan, won Flying Dutchman silver, Britain’s only sailing medal at Tokyo 1964, the first time Asia hosted an Olympics. But Musto and Morgan pioneered cutting-edge sports science techniques and Keith went on to establish the Musto clothing brand. 

Although still a strictly amateur competition, the first signs of a more professional approach began creeping in as nations in the East and West started aligning their Olympic medal hauls with the ‘success’ of their particular political ideology and global status.

In Rome, Jean Mitchell, competing in the Star class with husband Roy, was the last woman to represent Britain in sailing until 1984. 

1968 - 1976 Britain’s sailors enjoyed a golden period winning six medals across three Olympic games

Rodney Pattisson’s historic achievement of two golds at Mexico 1968 (with Iain MacDonald-Smith) and Munich 1972 (with Christopher Davies) and one silver at Montreal 1976 (with Julian Brooke-Houghton) in the Flying Dutchman remained unbeaten until Ben Ainslie won his third gold – and fourth Olympic medal in total – at Beijing 2008. 

Benefiting from Vernon Stratton’s professionalism, Britain’s sailors enjoyed a golden period winning six medals altogether at these three Games, making this Britain’s longest spell of consistent success since the early years. 

Twins Adrian and Stuart Jardine were the last siblings to date to sail for Britain at the same Games in 1968 while it was third time lucky for Robin Aisher, who finally won an Olympic medal, 5.5m bronze, in Mexico. 

In Munich the number of classes increased from five to six, while for Montreal, two established keelboats, the Star and Dragon, were replaced by the modern, glassfibre, trapezing 470 and the multihull Tornado in a bid to modernise the Games. 

Reg White, with brother-in-law John Osborn, won Tornado gold with a race to spare. The victory was even sweeter as White played a lead role in the catamaran’s development. 

1980 - 1996 Despite Britain’s absence from the 1980 Moscow games, 1996 saw the emergence of Ben Ainslie

The period 1980 – 1996 started in controversial circumstances, with the British sailing team’s absence from Moscow 1980, but ended with the emergence of the country’s biggest ever Olympic sailing star, Ben Ainslie. 

Britain won just five Olympic sailing medals at Los Angeles 1984, Seoul 1988, Barcelona 1992 and Atlanta 1996, with Bryn Vaile and Mike McIntyre bringing home Britain’s only gold, thanks to their unforgettable Star victory in monstrous conditions in Seoul. 

Ainslie’s arrival was a much-needed shot in the arm. The then shy 19-year-old won the first of his four consecutive Olympic medals – Laser class silver - on his Games debut in 1996. 

This was an era of significant evolution in Olympic sailing. Windsurfing was first introduced in 1984 for men and in 1992 for women, while in 1988 the first women-only event - the two-person 470 class - was included to address the paltry number of women competing in Olympic sailing. 

The first Paralympic sailing demonstration regatta also took place in 1996. In the Sonar three-person keelboat (plus reserve), the gold medal was won by the British crew of Andy Cassell, Kevin Curtis, Tony Downs and Ian Harrison. 

2000 - 2012 The dawn of the 21st century saw the most successful period in Britain’s sailing history

The RYA was quick to capitalise on the arrival of National Lottery funding in 1997 and implemented a highly-strategic Olympic programme enabling sailors to run professional, full-time campaigns underpinned by access to an extensive support network of coaching, sports science, logistics, technical projects and meteorology experts. The sailors also have greater support with the costs of training and competing internationally. 

Ben Ainslie’s golden Finn class hat-trick provides the headline achievement, but Shirley Robertson, Iain Percy, Sarah Ayton and Sarah Webb all became two-time Olympic champions. Nick Rogers, Joe Glanfield and Simon Hiscocks also twice won Olympic silverware while Ian Walker made it back-to-back silvers in Sydney. 

Athens 2004 saw Nick Dempsey claim Britain’s first Olympic windsurfing medal, bronze, and Bryony Shaw became the first British woman to achieve the same feat at Beijing 2008. 

Sailing also became a full Paralympic sport at Sydney 2000 and at Beijing 2008 a third class, the SKUD two-person skiff, was introduced. 

Sailors brought home five medals from their home waters of Weymouth and Portland during London 2012. Ben Ainslie became the most successful sailor in Olympic history winning a fourth gold medal. British 470 stars Luke Patience - Stuart Bithell and Hannah Mills-Saskia Clark both won gold in their respect fleets. 

Iain Percy and Andrew Simpson won their second Olympic medal together, missing out on gold by just two points. Nick Dempsey won his second windsurfing medal. 

Great Britain also won their first ever Paralympic medal, Helena Lucas won gold in the 2.4mR class, meanwhile Alexandra Rickham and Niki Birrel won bronze in the SKUD. 

2016 - present British talent continues to rise and conquer the sailing scene

The Rio 2016 cycle brought about change within the British Sailing Team as many big names including Ainslie, Percy, Simpson and Goodison bowed out of Olympic campaigning.  

The gaps they left were quickly filled by talented young sailors such as Nick Thompson, Dylan Fletcher and Ben Saxton, but the most significant new face was that of Giles Scott. Ainslie’s successor had waited patiently in the wings as his mentor became the greatest Olympic sailor of all time, and Rio was his chance to show his own worth. 

Great Scott sewed up the Finn regatta, held in Rio’s Guanabara Bay, with a day to spare while Mills and Clark avenged their runners-up finish at London 2012 with gold in the women’s 470. Nick Dempsey’s silver in the men’s RS:X saw him retire from Olympic competition as the first male athlete ever to win three medals. 

The usual four-year Olympic cycle was thrown a curveball when the Covid-19 pandemic delayed Tokyo 2020 by a year.   

Mills was back, this time with new crew Eilidh McIntyre, in an attempt to make history as the most successful female Olympic sailor of all time. So too was Scott, who, like Ainslie before him, juggled his Olympic campaign with preparation for the America’s Cup.  

It was windsurfing prodigy Emma Wilson who got the medal haul underway in Enoshima, the sailing venue for Tokyo 2020, winning bronze. Wilson became only the second British woman to win an Olympic windsurfing medal, and continued the family legacy started by her mum, two-time Olympian Penny Way. 

It kickstarted a run of dramatic gold medals for Britain, with Dylan Fletcher and Stuart Bithell clinching the 49er title on the finish line of the medal race, Giles Scott clawing back in unbelievable style to win the Finn class, and Mills and McIntyre realising their Olympic dreams in the women’s 470. A silver for Nacra 17 pair John Gimson and Anna Burnet helped Britain become the greatest Olympic sailing nation of all time. 

The british sailing team for paris 2024

A new crop of talent will aim to maintain Britain’s place at the top of the sailing medal table when the Paris 2024 action begins in Marseille on July 28, 2024.