Triathlon is a relatively modern sport, as it originated in the early 20th century and didn’t truly become popular until the mid-1970s. As a result, the history isn’t nearly as deep as with most other sports. There are, however, plenty of interesting facts that any triathlon fan or participant should be eager to know.
Origins of the modern-day triathlon can be traced back to France in the 1920's, where declaration of the “Les Trois Sports” event was first published in a French newspaper. The event featured a 3-kilometer run, a 12-km bike, and a swim across the Marne Channel. Throughout that decade, the three events – held in sequential order with no breaks between – continued to be held in France as a publicized race. This type of race was the first of its kind and led the way for the sport to develop into the international phenomenon it is today. “Les Trois Sports” steadily grew in popularity over the next few decades, becoming an annual phenomenon on the international level. These days, the event is held in its location of origin, Meulan, France.
Triathlons in the U.S.
It wasn’t until the late 1960s when the multi-sport training concept grew within another part of the world: San Diego, California. However, it is well-documented that the French events had little to no influence on the San Diego’s expansion of the sport. “Modern-day” triathlon history dates back to San Diego Mission Bay, with the San Diego Track Club.
Pioneered by Don Shanahan and Jack Johnstone, both members of the club, the triathlon was designed as an alternative to rigorous track training to help prepare them for marathon and 10k events. The events began non-competitively, but quickly grew in popularity and competition. On September 25, 1974, the first official triathlon event was held. It featured a 10-km run, an 8-km bike race, and a 500-meter swim. The event was sponsored by the San Diego Track Club, and featured 46 competitors.
A Rising Trend
A few years later in Hawaii, an argument arose over which of the three disciplines required the greatest endurance. At that time, Hawaii hosted The Waikiki Rough Water Swim (2.4 miles), The Oahu Bike Race (112 miles), and The Honolulu Marathon (26.2 miles). Originally three separate events, they were rolled into one to become the Hawaii Ironman Triathlon.
The first Iron Man Triathlon event was held in 1978, attracting 15 total athletes. Three of the competitors didn’t even cross the finish line. By 1982, the level of interest in the Hawaii Ironman Triathlon had skyrocketed. It had 580 competitors and received extensive coverage in the United States on ABC’s "Wide World of Sports".
The United States Triathlon Association (USTA) and the American Triathlon Association (ATA) were both founded in 1982 with the intention of governing the rapidly developing sport. Not too long into its first year of existence, the ATA moved under the umbrella of the USTA. A year later, the United States Triathlon Association became known as Triathlon Federation/USA, and was commonly referred to as “Tri Fed.” This organization quickly became the premier sanctioning body for triathlon events in the United States, hosting approximately 1,500 events in its first year of establishment.
Olympics & Beyond
Not long after its emergence, Tri Fed representatives met with the U.S. Olympic Committee in regards to the integration of a triathlon race in the Olympic Games. It was determined that Tri Fed needed to satisfy specific regulations mandated by the U.S. Olympic Committee, which were fulfilled over the next few years. In 1988, with the intention of still establishing itself as an Olympic sport, Tri Fed moved to its current home in Colorado Springs, Colorado – the same location where the headquarters for the U.S. Olympic Committee was located.
Two years later, after Tri Fed’s regulations imposed by the International Olympic Committee were fulfilled and the sport demonstrated great potential in both popularity and competition, the sport of triathlon received official Olympic standing. Shortly thereafter, Tri Fed changed its name to what it is today, USA Triathlon, a name that would distinguish the organization as an officially recognized governing body by the U.S. Olympic Committee. At that same time, the International Olympic Committee recognized the ITU as the sole international governing body for the sport of triathlon.
In 1989, the International Triathlon Union (ITU) was founded in Avignon, France. The first official world championship was held in that location. Official distances for the race were established – they were: A 1500-m swim, a 40-km cycle, and a 10-km run. The event was a huge success and plans for the second world championship – determined to be held in Orlando, Florida – began immediately. The Florida event was also a success.
The first Olympic triathlons were held at the 2000 Summer Games in Sydney, Australia. Switzerland’s Brigitte McMahon won the women’s race and Canada’s Simon Whitfield won the men’s race. By the 2000 Summer Games, USA Triathlon had exceeded 30,000 members and was continuing to grow at a rapid pace. By 2004, USA Triathlon had grown to 53,000 members and exceeded 100,000 members in 2007. At the 2008 Summer Games in China, Australia’s Emma Snowsill won the women’s race and Germany’s Jan Frodeno won the men’s competition. A total of 110 athletes participated in the triathlon event at the 2008 Olympics.
Today, the sport of triathlon continues to grow, both in participation and popularity. Triathlon clubs have emerged in nearly every major city and thousands of races are held across the globe each year. USA Triathlon is committed to introducing the sport to all ages and lifestyles, specifically among youths (as the sport is primarily popular with adults). The extraordinary growth-rate over the past 30 years is due to the sport’s fast-paced and challenging characteristics. Expect further developments over the next decade.