Sailing competitions have been held since the 19th century, but without a uniform set of rules, individual yachting clubs each developed their own. When clubs competed against each other, there were conflicts over which rules should be enforced. In June 1906 a “metre rule” was established for the uniform measurement of racing yachts and representatives of 13 European nations formed the International Yacht Racing Union and adopted a common code. In 1929, the North American Yacht Racing Rules were established with almost identical wording. It wasn’t until 1960 that a totally universal code of racing rules was agreed upon.
Sailing was to have been on the program of the first modern Olympic Games in 1896 however storms in the Bay of Salamis caused the competition to be cancelled. Sailing events have been included in every Olympic Games since then, with the exception of St. Louis 1904.
In the early Olympic Games, the events were dominated by bigger boats with large crews of up to 12 sailors. But in the mid-20th century events began to trend towards smaller boats with fewer crew members. Women have always been allowed to compete with men, but separate events for women began to be introduced at Seoul 1988. Sailing has been included at all editions of the Pan American Games, except three: 1955 (Mexico City), 1967 (Winnipeg) and 1975 (Mexico City).
Sailing events are designated by the model of boat (ie: RS;X, Laser, 49er, etc) but the type of boat (ie: windsurfer, skiff, multihull, etc) is helpful to compare historical results because the models used in each event have changed more frequently. For example, the windsurfer has been on the Olympic program since Los Angeles 1984, but the RS:X is the fourth model of windsurfer to be used in Olympic competition.
In fleet racing, all of the boats in an event are on the water at the same time, with the winner being the first boat to cross the finish line. Competition in each event is an 11-race series (except the 49er which is a 16-race series). Boats are allocated points for their finishing position in each race (First place = 1 point, second place = 2 points, etc). Boats that fail to finish a race are allocated one point more than the number of boats entered in the race.
Beginning at Beijing 2008, the ISAF introduced the Medal Race, which is the final race in each event. After the first 10 races (15 in 49er), the 10 boats with the lowest total scores (with each boat’s worst score after five races dropped) advance to the Medal Race, which is held over a shorter course and the points for the finishing positions are doubled (First place = 2 points, second place = 4 points, etc). The scores of the boats in the Medal Race are added to their scores from the opening series of races to determine the final standings.
The race committee decides the course for each race, based on wind direction and strength, and is responsible for laying the floating marker buoys. The course is set so that boats must sail both upwind and downwind.