A Brief History of Triathlons

Like a lot of people, you may believe that triathlons owe their origins to the athletes of Ancient Greece. Actually, however, their roots are considerably closer, in both time and  first true triathlon

Would you believe that the first triathlon was sponsored by the San Diego Track Club in 1974? There was a somewhat similar event, called “Les Trois Sports”, in France in 1920, which was only a 3km run, 12km bike ride and a swim across the Marne River. But the San Diego event was the first competition ever referred to as a triathlon.

Whose idea was it?

That first San Diego race was the brainchild of Don Shanahan and Jack Johnstone. They convinced the S.D. Track Club to sponsor the event, handled all the preparation logistics and directed the race. The swim, peddle, run sequence seemed to them to make the most sense to them, and they personally briefed the entrants of that first race, and shook their hands afterward.

With only 46 entrants, it may seem odd that that San Diego race touched off such a popular competition. But within four years, it was copied, on a slightly larger scale, in Hawaii. John Collins, a U.S. Navy Commander, decided that such a race would be a perfect way to settle an old debate of which was more physically fit, a runner or a swimmer.
He and his wife had both competed in the San Diego triathlon twice, and Collins saw an opportunity to combine three separate Hawaiian competitions to form the Hawaii Ironman Triathlon. Thus were joined the Waikiki Rough Water Swim (2.4 mile), the Oahu Bike Race (112 mile) and the Honolulu Marathon (26.2 mile).

Since that time, triathlons have continued to grow in popularity and there are now many such races around the world, many of which are stepping stones in a competitive series. The major difference between those races is the length of their respective legs:
– Sprint (750 m, 12 km, 5 km) – Olympic (1.5 km, 40 km, 10 km)- Half-Ironman (1.9 km, 90 km, 21.1 km)- Ironman (3.9 km, 180 km, 42.2 km).
There are a few major governing bodies and sponsors responsible for the majority of triathlon competitions around the world:

1. World Triathlon Corporation (WTC) – they own the Hawaii Ironman race, and are the trademark holder of the Ironman name, hosting several other Ironman events worldwide;
2. International Triathlon Union (ITU) – they were originally formed to push for the addition of triathlons into the Olympic Games, and were finally successful as of the 2000 Games in Sydney;
3. International Ultra-Triathlon Association (IUTA) – they sanction endurance events that surpass even the Ironman competitions in length.

Each sanctioning group has its own rules and standards, although most adhere to similar criteria. There are minor differences, such as a mass start versus staggered, clocking transition times as part of the preceding leg’s total time versus counting them separately, or allowing/disallowing the use of wetsuits, but all consist of a swim – bike – run sequence, without any breaks.

Technological advances prompted by triathlons

A great deal of research and development effort has been invested in various aspects of triathlon competition, particularly since their addition to the Olympic Games. Running shoes, wetsuits and swimskins, racing bikes, training techniques and diet have all gotten more attention as a result.

Long distance running shoes are designed differently from track or sprint shoes, and triathlon bikes have different handle bars and a tilted seat angle not found on a typical bike. Triathlon swimskins and wetsuits have specially engineered surfaces to minimize the swimmers resistance in the water and maximize freedom of movement. And the diet and physical training regimen for triathletes is unique to the sport and the endurance demands placed upon  research and development has been of great use outside the realm of sports, as well. Exploration of the oceans and of space have both benefited from knowledge gained here, in the fields of medicine, engineering and physical training.

Expanding to include others

Triathlons, now a part of the Olympic Games, have been expanded in a fashion similar to the Paralympic Games, which now include the Paratriathlon. This new competition will debut in 2016 after the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. The Paratriathlon will be very similar to the Olympic triathlon, differing slightly in length of the event. It will include 750 meters in the swimming leg, 20 kilometers of biking and 5 kilometers of running.

At the end of the day

While triathlons haven’t been around for centuries, its athletes are no less dedicated to the ideal of personal excellence than were those of the 7th century BC. Simply being able to compete is a noteworthy accomplishment, in an event as demanding as the triathlon.

The continuing popularity of triathlons has helped spawn a number of businesses in support of the sport. Competitors keep pushing themselves to break records and reach new limits and new races appear, such as the Enduroman Arch to Arc. The Enduroman includes an 87 mile run, a 22 mile swim across the English Channel and a 181 mile bike leg – only 7 people have ever managed to complete the race.

But there will be an eighth… and a ninth. And one day, there will probably be a longer race. There will be innovative shoes, bikes and wetsuits, just as there will be new records set. That’s what triathlon competition is all about… setting new records, both personal and universal.