The History of Triathlon

Triathlon is an event that consists of 3 disciplines, swimming, cycling and running. This is the classic version of the triathlon but there could be variations with other sports. And even in the classic version there are multiple versions with different distances.

The beginning

It’s hard to pinpoint one exact starting moment for triathlon but the beginning can be found in the early twentieth century in France. The first multisport event was organized in 1901 but the third sport was canoeing instead of swimming. This event eventually evolved to the classic triathlon with swimming, cycling and running in 1921. These events gained some popularity in France as multiple cities started to organize triathlons but they were still pretty insignificant on the world stage.

The first modern triathlon

The first modern triathlon event was organized in 1974 in San Diego, even though the name triathlon was not yet introduced. The event was organized by Jack Johnstone and Don Shanahan who introduced the name triathlon a few years later. It’s important to know that Johnstone and Shanahan had never heard about the French events so they were convinced they had a unique idea.

The Ironman

The idea for the Ironman triathlon started in 1977. John Collins heard about the incredible oxygen intake from cyclist Eddy Merckx. Collins wanted to create one of the most challenging sport events ever. He settled on swimming 2.4 miles, cycling112 miles, and running 26.2 miles. The event was organized in Hawaii on February 18, 1978, of the fifteen men that started twelve finished. This first race was won by Gordon Haller.

Triathlon becoming popular throughout the world

These events became more and more popular in the US and eventually spread internationally. Eventually the first triathlon in Europe was organized in Pilsen, Czechoslovakia in 1980. After that there were a few triathlons in 1981 but the first European triathlon with a lot of media coverage was the Triathlon in Nice in 1982 which consisted of 1500m swimming, 100km cycling and running a marathon.

Throughout the eighties Triathlon became more and more popular all over the world. Eventually the first international Triathlon committee was introduced, the European Triathlon Union (ETU) consisted of 11 European countries who wanted to work together and  standardize the rules. The huge influence from France on the committee became clear as they all changed to  the French system.

Triathlon becomes an Olympic sport

After the ETU the first attempt at a worldwide organization was the Triathlon Federation International. There were only 22 members and the federation quickly disbanded because of multiple disputes, especially about the voting rights.

Around the same time Juan Antonio Samaranch, the president of the International Olympic Committee, expressed his wish to introduce triathlon at the Olympic Games. He promised triathlon would be a demonstration event at the Olympic Games in 1992.

The IOC created a committee led by Les McDonald, this committee held an informal meeting in 1989 that was a week long. On April 1st in 1989 30 national triathlon federations came together and agreed to create the International Triathlon Union. The first president was Les McDonald and the ITU was recognized by the IOC in 1991. Eventually triathlon became an official Olympic sport at the Olympic Games in Sydney.

Right now a triathlon is something everyone wants to complete at least once. With the right training anything is possible. Today there are a lot of different triathlon events to chose from so you can start with a smaller triathlon near you. And who knows maybe one day you can complete an Ironman or even win one!