History of triathlon
According to some commentators, modern triathlon history officially began on the 25th of September 1974, when a multi-sport race was held at Mission Bay in San Diego, California. This first event had its 46 participants cover a 500-yard distance by swimming, followed by 5 miles on a bike and a 6-mile run. It was the brainchild of Jack Johnstone and Don Shanahan of the San Diego Track Club, with sponsorship being provided in-house.
While multi-sport races had been held as far back as the 1920s, both organizers maintain that they weren’t significantly influenced by a precedent. The San Diego event served both to set the formula for triathlon races to come — swimming, biking and running with the only respite in between being used to change into specialized gear — but also to provide an official name for this type of multi-sport race. The word itself comes from Greek, with treis meaning “three” and athlos, “competition”.
It’s hard, however, not to see the roots of the modern triathlon in France, where during the 1920s and 30s multiple three-sport events were held under various names, most popular of which being “Les Trois sports” (The Three Sports) and “La Course des Debruillards” (The Course of the Resourceful). At least one of them, “La course the Touche a Tout” is still being held today near the town of Joinville-le-Pont in southern France.
The “Les Trois sports” event was documented in 1920 by the French Newspaper L’Auto as featuring a 1.9-mile run, a 7.5-mile bike ride and a swim across the Marne channel, with the races being held in that order and no break allowed in between. A “Les Trois sports” competition following the modern distribution of races — biking, swimming and running — was written about in 1934 as taking place in the town of La Rochelle.
While its popularity in France appears to have peaked during the interwar period, the earliest report of a tri-race event dates back as early as 1902 and features canoeing instead of swimming.
Returning to the United States, the sport was first officially regulated in 1982, with the formation of USA Triathlon (USAT). From an initial membership of just 1,500, the USAT grew into a 100,000 strong organization, the largest of its kind in the world, with over 2000 tri-sport races sanctioned a year, for multiple age groups and on any distance.
In no small part as a recognition of this country’s role in the development of triathlon, the first international governing body for the sport (International Triathlon Union) was founded in 1989 in the city of Avignon, southern France. Among other things, the ITU set the first official racing distance, which applies to both the international championship cup series and Olympic events. These were initially thought of by veteran American race director Jim Curl and are as follows: 1500 m (0.93 miles) for swimming, 40 km (24.8 miles) for biking and 10 km (6.2 miles) for running.
Although known as the “Olympic distances,” they were initially featured during the US Triathlon Series in 1982, and later in the first ITU World Cup event, held in Avignon in 1989. The same year, triathlon is to be granted Olympic status by the IOC, after great pressure from triathlon enthusiasts, governing bodies and international athletes sympathetic to the sport. Regardless of where you choose to place the date of its inception, gaining Olympic status in such a short amount of time should be seen as a remarkable achievement.
Triathlon made its debut as an Olympic event during the Summer games held in 2000 in Sydney. The number of competitors was set at 100, with 52 men and 48 women signing in, and the first gold medals going to the Canadian Simon Whitfield for men and Brigitte McMahon of Switzerland for women. Subsequent Olympics kept to the same rules and distances covered, while the quota for triathletes was increased to 110 for the Beijing games of 2008.
Besides the World Championships and Olympic events, there are a number of famous triathlon races that managed to gather a great deal of attention throughout the years. The most important of these is probably the Hawaii Ironman, held for the first time in 1978 when it was decided that the Waikiki Rough Water Swim (2.4 miles), The Oahu Bike race (112 miles) and the Honolulu Marathon be combined into a single tri-sport event.
This was done at the initiative of members of the Mid-Pacific Road Runner club, particularly tri-athlete John Collins and members of the Waikiki swim club, who couldn’t decide upon which type of athlete — swimmer or runner, with bikers, added later — exhibited the best overall stamina and fitness.
The name couldn’t fit this grueling race any better since only 12 out of the 15 original competitors ever managed to cross the finish line. But the challenge proved attractive, and by 1982, when the first Hawaii Ironman was broadcast by the ABC, 600 competitors were lining for a start. The number of willing participants swole to over 3000 for the 2006 edition, with the organizers being usually forced to set up lotteries in order to fit the maximum quota (generally 1,000) of competitors.
The Ironmen type of triathlon grew into an institution in its own right, with a separate governing body, The World Triathlon Corporation. The WTC organizes both the Ironman World Championships and Ironman series races on six continents. Most of these follow the same distances set in Hawaii in ‘78, but the different weather and geographical conditions under which these are held give them a high degree of variety.