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History of Triathlons

Many people believe that triathlons originated in ancient Greece. You may be surprised to learn that while the Olympic Games began in the 7th century BC, triathlons can be traced to a much later birth. The modern day triathlon actually has its origins in France in 1920, with “Les Trois Sports”, comprised of a 3km run, a 12km bike ride and a swim across the Marne River, without any breaks.

The birth of triathlons

However, the first such event to be formally referred to as a triathlon took place in San Diego, California as recently as 1974, with a mere 46 entrants.*

This first true triathlon was sponsored by the San Diego Track Club, instigated and directed by Jack Johnstone and Don Shanahan. This began an annual tradition that continues to this day, and has been duplicated in many places around the world.

The Hawaii Ironman Triathlon, considered by many to be the most grueling of all triathlons, was inaugurated in 1978, combining the Waikiki Rough Water Swim (2.4mi.), the Oahu Bike Race (112mi.) and the Honolulu Marathon 26.2mi). The first Ironman competition included 15 entrants, only 12 of whom completed the course.

The Ironman competition was first suggested by U.S. Navy Commander John Collins, as a means of settling a long-standing debate regarding the relative fitness of swimmers and runners.

Collins and his wife had both competed twice in the San Diego triathlon, so he proposed combining the three Hawaiian events along similar lines, but at greater distances. His idea received sufficient local support so that the first Ironman Triathlon took place on February 18th, four years after that prophetic San Diego race.

There have been many variations of the “Three Sports” race since 1920, in terms of both the sports involved and the lengths of the segments, but all now include swimming, biking and running, in that sequence, with no breaks between. The basic distances are:

  1. Sprint (750 m, 12 km, 5 km)
  2. Olympic (1.5 km, 40 km, 10 km)
  3. Half-Ironman (1.9 km, 90 km, 21.1 km)
  4. Ironman (3.9 km, 180 km, 42.2 km).


Various organizations have cropped up to support triathlon competition and the lengths of their races vary, with the Olympic distance being the most prevalent. The World Triathlon Corporation (WTC), for instance, which owns the Hawaii Ironman race, also hosts other Ironman competitions around the world.

The Hawaii race is known as the Ironman World Championship. “Ironman” is subject to a trademark held by the WTC, and no other organizations are permitted to use the term in conjunction with any competition or products.

In 1989, in an effort to promote triathlon competition as a part of the Olympic program, the International Triathlon Union (ITU) was founded as the international governing body of the sport. The ITU doesn’t sanction any of the WTC races, but it does incorporate part of the WTC rules into its events.

Another international governing body is the International Ultra-Triathlon Association (IUTA), which sanctions events in distances even greater than those of the Ironman competitions.

Triathlons were finally made a part of the Olympic Games, first appearing in the Sydney Games in 2000. This recognition of the triple sport has prompted additional research and development in technology, equipment and fitness.


Different organizations can set their own rules and standards, in order to best promote participation in their events. Lengths of the segments is one major variable, but others can involve mass start vs. staggered start, whether transition times are counted separately or added to the preceding segment, permission to use wetsuits, and many other criteria.

Some triathlons are geared more toward amateur participation, while others are important parts of a series, leading up to a final championship. Some separate the competitors into groups by age, while others group entrants by weight.

Still others have stretched the limits to exceed all others. The Enduroman Arch to Arc, for instance, includes an 87 mile run, a 22 mile swim across the English Channel and a 181 mile bike leg. Only 7 people in history have ever even completed the Enduroman, but new challengers continue to surface each year.


The development of triathlons as a major sporting endeavor has had a number of impacts, some of the most prominent being:

1. Equipment

Running shoes – running shoes aren’t exactly a new concept, but there have been new developments in the design and fabrication of running shoes as a direct result of triathlon demands. Special supports to aid in the endurance of runners for several miles, as opposed to a few blocks of jogging or 660 yards of sprinting are necessary considerations. Manufacturers have spent considerable R&D funding to ensure their shoes meet those demands.

Racing bicycles – Racing bikes are, of course, light-weight, and that’s nothing new, either. That’s not the only aspect of triathlon bikes that required the attention of designers, however. The design of the handlebars, to accommodate the special angle of long-distance bicycle competition was another. The handlebars on these bikes are lower than the saddle, in order to accommodate the forward leaning posture that yields the least aerodynamic resistance. The saddle is also mounted at a forward angle, as this allows for a posture that is less tiring for the rider’s legs. This not only aids the rider during the bike leg of the race, but also helps conserve energy for the running phase to follow.

Wetsuits/swim skins – Most sanctioned triathlons allow wetsuits whenever the water temperature is below 79F (26C). Individuals that tend to overheat may choose a sleeveless version with the legs cut above the knee. A wetsuit provides warmth against the chilly water, but also provides a certain buoyancy effect, which can greatly augment the swimmer’s speed. Thus, many events limit the allowable thickness of the suit.

Swim-skins offer very little buoyancy benefit, and less insulating value than wetsuits, but both offer greatly reduced hydrodynamic resistance, in comparison to human skin. Great technological advances have been made in the make-up of the fabrics of both, which has certainly been partly driven by the need for faster swim-skins and wetsuits.

2. Medical/fitness

As competitors continue to push the performance envelope, the increased demands placed on their systems have required in-depth discovery of the chemical and hormonal changes that take place under great physical stress. Much research has been undertaken as a direct result of triathlon participants, resulting in findings that have benefited many aspects of the physical fitness industry.

3. Technology

Much has been learned about human endurance and the technologies that originated around triathlons. This knowledge has also been utilized in other areas, such as the exploration of space and ocean and skydiving. Endocrinologists, hydrodynamic and aerodynamic engineers and therapists are just a few of the professionals that have focused their work on perfecting technologies first given credence as a result of research surrounding triathlon participation.

Further variations

Just as athletes in other sports are driven to push themselves to greater achievements, so too are those athletes that have suffered some sort of debilitating loss. The Paralympics has offered the opportunity to compete to athletes that are deaf, blind or have suffered the loss of the use of one or more limbs or some other disability since 1948, when a small group of British WWII veterans held the first such competition.

In 2010, the Paralympic Committee added the Para-Triathlon to the Paralympic Program, and the first Paralympic Games will debut in Rio de Janeiro at the 2016 Paralympic Games, immediately following the Olympic Games. This event is only slightly modified, consisting of 750m of swimming, followed by 20km of cycling and 5km of running.


Thus has developed one of the most physically challenging sporting events devised by man, and its popularity continues to rise, as do its contributions. As one triathlete I know once said, “You’re competing against yourself to be your best. The fact that you can emerge the best of the elite is just gravy.”


* Triathlon - The Early History of The Sport