History of The Triathlon

The triathlon has been said to have some sort of beginnings in the 1920’s in France.

Scott Tinley, a triathlon historian and author, says the origin of the triathlon is attributed to a race that happened during the 1920’s – 1930’s and was called by a variety names like “Les Trois Sports”, “La Course des Debrouillards”, and “La Course des Touche a Tout”.

This particular race is held yearly in France near Joinville-le-Pont, in Meulan and Poissy.

The earlier tri-sport event that was 1902 featured the events of running, cycling and canoeing.  There are many tri-sport events that featured running, swimming and cycling, but not necessarily in any particular order in 1920, 1921, 1945 and 1960’s.

The French newspaper L’Auto reported on the 1920 competition was called the “Les Trois Sports” and included a 3km run, 12 km bike, and a swim that was across the Marne channel.

There were no breaks in this particular race.  The event in 1921 that was in Marseilles used the order of bike-run-swim.  One of the participants included American athlete Charles Sector.

The French newspapers also included a race in Marseille in 1927.  The 1934 article was about “Les Trois Sports”, the three sports, was in La Rochelle with a race that included a channel crossing of 200m, a bike competition, 10km around the harbor of La Rochelle and the Parc Laleu and a run that was 1200 m in the stadium Andre-Barbeau.

Modern Times

What would be considered the first modern swim/bike/run event that was called a triathlon was held in San Diego, California at the Mission Bay on September 25, 1974.

The race was thought of and directed by Jack Johnstone and Don Shanahan, who were members of the San Diego Track Club, who also sponsored the event.  There were 46 participants entered into the competition.

It is said that it was not inspired by the events in French, although the race that took place the next year at Fiesta Island, California is called the first triathlon in America.


What is said to be the first modern long-distance triathlon was the Hawaiian Ironman Triathlon.  The event included a swim of 2.4 miles, a bike ride of 112 miles and a run of 26.219 miles.

It was during the awards ceremony of this event to have the 1977 Oahu Perimeter Rely, which is a running race that would be for a 5 person team.

Many of the participants represented the Mid-Pacific Road Runners and the Waikiki Swim Club, who had been debating for a long time which of them were more fit, meaning runners or swimmers.

On this particular occasion a U.S. Navy Commander John Collins made sure to point out that in a recent article in Sports Illustrated that had declared Eddy Merckx, who is the great Belgian cyclist, had the record for the highest “maximum oxygen uptake” of any athlete that had ever been measured, so maybe cyclist were better fit than anyone else.

Collins and his wife Judy had participated in the triathlons in 1974 and 1975 that was held by the San Diego Track Club that was in and around the Mission Bay, California.  They also participated in the Optimist Sports Fiesta Triathlon in Coronado, California in 1975.

There were many military athletes who attended that were familiar with the San Diego races, so they understood where Collins was coming from when he suggested the debate should be settled through a race that combined all three of the long-distance competitions already on the island:  The Waikiki Rough Water Swim of 2.4 miles, the Around – Oahu Bike Race of 115 miles and is a 2 day event and the 26.219 mile Honolulu Marathon.

No one who showed up realized the bike race would be a two-day event instead of a one-day even around the island.  The bike leg could start at the finish of the Waikiki Rough Water and then end at the Aloha Towers, which is where the traditional start of the Honolulu Marathon took place.

Before the race began each athlete received three sheets of paper that listed a few rules along with a course description.  Then handwritten on the last page was the following:

“Swim 2.4 miles! Bike 112 miles! Run 26.2 miles! Brag for the rest of your life!” Those words were written by Commander COllins of the uS Navy.

With a nod to a local runner who was notorious for his demanding workouts, Collins said:  “Whoever finishes first, we’ll call him the Ironman.”

Fifteen men started the race early in the morning on February 18, 1078 while only 12 completed the race.  The world’s first Ironman was Gordon Haller and he completed the race in 11 hours, 46 minutes and 58 seconds.

Olympics Further information: Triathlon at the Summer Olympics

This particular sport made its first appearance in the Olympic program during the Sydney Games in 2000.  The Olympic Distance swim was 1,500 meters, bike 40 km and run 10km.

They also had additional distance by including two new long distance event that appeared as the 111 and 222.  The 111 distance was 1 km swimming, 100 km bicycling and 10km running, which totaled 111 km.  The 222 distance was doubled that.

The ITU will accept a 5% margin of error during the cycle and run course distances. There are some variation in race distances, particularly among the short triathlons, but most triathlons will conform to one of the above standards.

The International Triathlon Union (ITU) has sanctions and they are the ones to organize the World Cup and the World Championship Series races each year that will lead up to the annual World Championship for both the elite pro-triathletes, the junior pro-triathletes and the amateur athletes in 5 year age groups.

The ITU races that are conducted in the draft legal format for the bike leg, while drafting is not allowed at the amateur level.  The ITU also has a long distance triathlon series.

The World Triathlon Corporation (WTC) sanctions along with organizes a series of Ironman and Ironman 70.3 distance races every year.  The races serve as a way to qualify for things like the World Championships held annually in Kailua-Kona Hawai’I (October Ironman) and in Las Vegas, Nevada (September, Ironman 70.3).

Triathlons are not relegated to any prescribed distances.  The distances can be any combination of distance set by the race organizers to meet any various distance constraints or to even attract certain athletes.

Hope you’ve found this interesting!


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