The triathlon is a sport that has a long and interesting history. The triathlon as we know it today (swim, cycle, run) was first devised in 1974, but its origins go back even further.
Between 1901 and 1934 there were several variations of the triathlon, with some interesting twists.
The first triathlon involved a canoe! In this article we will be taking a look at the history of the modern triathlon, an event that combines swimming (usually in open water), cycling, and running.
1974 – 1980 – The History of Triathlon
The triathlon as we know it today can trace its routes back to San Diego in 1974, where the San Diego Mission Bay Track Club created the first triathlon race on the 25th September. This race had been the brainchild of Track Club members Jack Johnstone and Don Shanahan. 46 racers took part in that first race.
The sport proved very popular and numbers increased year on year throughout the 1970s. In 1978 the first Ironman Triathlon was completed in Hawaii. The ironman came out due to an argument about which of the three sports required the most endurance.
There were three main races held in Hawaii each year, a 115-mile cycle race known as the Around Oahu Bike Race, the Honolulu Marathon (26.2 miles), and a 2.4-mile swim known as the Waikiki Rough Water Swim.
All three races were combined to create the Ironman triathlon, the cycle race was cut by 3 miles to 112 miles, and the races between 1978 and 1980 were held in Oahu, before being moved to the Big Island in 1981.
Triathlon races were solely focused in the United States for the first six years of its existence, but that all changed in 1980 when the first European triathlon was held in Pilsen, Czechoslovakia. Triathlon had truly become international.
1981-1990 – The History of Triathlon
Triathlon competitions continued to be held in America and Europe, with the Netherlands, Germany, and Belgium hosting events in 1981, and Nice, France hosting an event in 1982.
In this time, the structure of triathlon races was not defined, and several races (such as Nice and Hawaii) were much longer than usual. Interestingly, this is one aspect of triathlons that has not changed over the years. Many races vary in terms of the length of the cycle race, run, or swim. Though usually, the ratio is similar.
In 1985 the first triathlon governing body was set up in Europe. It was named the European Triathlon Union (ETU), its main purpose was to stand up to American triathlon representatives. This is because the European countries feared that America would dominate any World Triathlon Federations in the future.
France had recently been recognised by the French Olympic Committee, it was the first nation to do so and this gave it power within the ETU. The French Triathlon Federation set the standards for all European Triathlons.
In 1989 the International Triathlon Union (ITU) was formed, this was a landmark moment and marks the exact moment where triathlon stopped being an amateur sport and began to work towards professionalism.
1991-1999 – The History of Triathlon
The 90s saw many deals made as the ITU made great strides towards getting triathlons into the Olympics. However, the 90s also saw a schism in the sport when the World Triathlon Corporation (WTC) was formed in 1991. They owned the Ironman races, while the ITU owned regular triathlon races. This schism led to a lot of tit for tat conflict in the 2000s.
In 1991 the ITU was recognised by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) as the sole governing body for triathlon. This paved the way for triathlon to be invited to the Pan American Games in Argentina (1995). In 1996 it was invited to be in the Sydney Olympics in 2000.
In 2000 the first Olympic triathlon event occurred, with Simon Whitfield of Canada and Brigitte McMahon of Switzerland winning gold medals in the men’s and women’s races. 2002 saw triathlon being welcomed to the Commonwealth games in Manchester, and in 2004 Hamish Carter of New Zealand and Kate Allen of Austria won gold in the men’s and women’s races in Athens.
2012 saw the rise of the Brownlee brothers from Yorkshire, England. Alistair Brownlee won gold while his brother Jonathan won bronze. Alistair would follow up his 2012 win four years later in Rio de Janeiro with another gold medal while Jonathan won silver.
2016 saw the first ever Paralympic triathlon, known as a paratriathlon. The paratriathlon involved five different classifications and contained a 820 yard swim, a 12 mile cycle, and a 3.1 mile run. Athletes in the PT1 classification used a handcycle during the cycling stage and used a racing wheelchair rather than running.
In 2020 the Olympic games will be held in Tokyo, where there will be a mixed relay version of a triathlon. Two men and two women will perform a 300m swim, an 8km cycle, and a 2km run. They will then tag a teammate who will also perform the swim, cycle, and run. For a total of four rounds.
Standard Distances for Triathlon
There are four distances that can be used in triathlons, though individual triathlon distances can vary. There is a sprint triathlon, an Olympic triathlon, a Half-Ironman triathlon, and an Ironman triathlon.
- Sprint Triathlon: The shortest version of a triathlon, the sprint triathlon involves a 500-yard swim, a 13-mile cycle, and a 3.2-mile run.
- Olympic Triathlon: The Olympic triathlon is a bit longer, but as each course is different in length this can vary quite a bit. An Olympic triathlon involves a 930-yard swim, a 24.8-mile cycle, and a 6.2-mile run.
- Half-Ironman Triathlon: Also known as Ironman 70.3, the half-ironman triathlon has been around since 1979, though the first officially verified Ironman 70.3 was held in the UK in 2001. The Half-Ironman Triathlon is exactly what it says it is, half of the distance of an Ironman triathlon. A half-ironman triathlon involves a 1.2-mile swim, a 56-mile cycle, and a 13.1-mile run.
- Ironman Triathlon: The longest triathlon variation is the ironman triathlon. An ironman triathlon involves swimming 2.4-miles, cycling 112 miles, and running 26.2 miles.