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  • Scott Neyedli

The History of Triathlon

Updated: Aug 27, 2018





A swim club in Marseilles, France, held a three-sport event in 1921, consisting of a bicycle leg of about 7 kilometres, a 5-kilometer run, and a 200-meter swim. It was called the Course Des Trois Sports (Race of Three Sports).


Evidently there was no follow-up on that, though, and it was more than 50 years before the modern triathlon was created. It grew out of a run-swim biathlon staged in San Diego by David Pain in 1972 to celebrate his 50th birthday.


The birthday biathlon was repeated in 1973. One of the competitors, Jack Johnstone, enjoyed it so much that he decided to stage his own biathlon, and he enlisted the help of a friend, Don Shanahan.


Shanahan suggested that a bicycle stage be added and Johnstone agreed. The pair got the support of the San Diego Track Club, which announced a "Run, Cycle, Swim Triathlon" to be held on Sept. 25, 1974.


The event was so successful that Johnstone and Shanahan decided to hold three more of them in 1975. In the meantime, the Coronado, CA, Optimists Club also sponsored a triathlon. It was the Ironman, though, that really caught the public eye and led to a major explosion of the new sport.


John Collins, a U. S. Navy officer who competed in that first triathlon, took the idea to Hawaii, where he combined three major endurance races, the 3.8-kilometer Waikiki Rough Water Swim, the 180-kilometer Around-Oahu Bike Race and the 42.195-kilometer Honolulu Marathon, into a single event known as the Ironman Triathlon.


Only 12 men finished the first Ironman, held in January of 1978. In 1979, there were 14 finishers, including one woman.


The second race inspired a major article that ran in Sports Illustrated in May of 1979. As a result, 108 entrants showed up for the 1980 triathlon, and so did ABC's Wide World of Sports.


By 1982, the triathlon had become so popular that two organizations were founded to govern the sport in the United States. They quickly merged into a single national governing body, the United States Triathlon Association (now USA Triathlon). Triathlon Magazine also began publishing that year.


The International Triathlon Union (ITU) was founded at Avignon, France, in April of 1989 and the first world championship was held in August, also at Avignon. The triathlon was added to the Goodwill Games in 1994, to the Pan-American Games program in 1995, and to the Olympics in 2000.


There were originally 25 nations in the ITU. That number has now grown to more than 140. USA Triathlon, which has more than 30,000 individual members, sanctions about 1,000 events a year. Those events include several offshoots of the original triathlon, among them the winter triathlon and the aquathon, which is a swimming race sandwiched between two runs.

The distances used in the first world championship race, a 1.5-kilometer swim, 40-kilometer bicycle ride, and 10-kilometer run, have been standard for major events ever since. The Ironman, however, adheres to its considerably longer distances: 2.4 miles for the swim, 112 miles for the bicycle leg, and a full marathon of 26 miles, 385 yards, for its running leg.

In 1994, the ITU added a separate long distance world championship, using the same distances as the Ironman.


Three offshoots of the triathlon, the duathlon, the aquathon, and the winter triathlon, now have their own world championships, also conducted by the ITU. The aquathon combines two running legs with a single swimming leg. Standard distances are 10 kilometres for swimming and 2.5 kilometres for each of the running legs. The first world championship races were conducted in 1998.


The duathlon has two running legs and one cycling leg. For the original world championship in 1990, distances were 10 kilometres running, 40 kilometres cycling, and 5 kilometres running. In 2004, the long distance duathlon was added to the ITU's world championship events. In the long distance race, competitors run 20 kilometres, cycle for 120 kilometres, and run 10 kilometres in the final leg.


The winter triathlon combines running, mountain biking, and cross-country skiing. The ITU began individual world championships for both men and women in 1997. The team relay was added in 2002. Standard distances are 8 kilometres running, 12 kilometres mountain biking, and 10 kilometres cross-country skiing.



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