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Sports Then and Now

History of Triathlon

Posted on November 11, 2020 by Tyler Tafelsky

As the sport’s most widely known origins, triathlon was modernized in the mid-1970s on the pacific coast of the U.S. Started by the San Diego Track Club in 1974, the first known official triathlon took place in Misson Bay on September 25th, and had 46 athletes involved.

According to Ironman, couple Judy and John Collins raced that event in San Diego and later planted the seed for triathlon events in Hawaii when they moved there a year later.

By 1978, Judy and John held the “Around the Island Triathlon,” which involved the standard triathlon distances of today’s Ironman – a 1.2-mile swim, 112-mile bike, and 26.2-mile run. And by 1980, this particular Ironman distance of triathlon quickly became a professional endurance event you now see televised every October as the world championships.

Although the mid-70s and early 80s eras remain to be the most popular story of triathlon’s history, such multisport events were taking place long before then in Europe.

Rewind 50 Years to France in the 1920s

Sports historians draw back to the 1920s era when French culture was hosting triathlon events. In fact, the French were some very first to pioneer and make popular various endurance sport we see today.

Back in the 1920s, French triathletes would participate in events called “Les trois sports”, which translates “the three sports’. These multisport events sometimes went by various names, including “La Course des Débrouillards” (the race of the resourceful) and “La course des Touche à Tout” (the race of the jack-of-all-trades). These various historic triathlons took place in French harbor cities like Marseilles and La Rochelle.

Although triathlon’s French roots and current most popular races involve swimming, biking, and running, athletes were continuously experimenting with different types of athletic combinations. There are still to this day a wide variety of triathlon formats, multisport events, and governing bodies.

Types of Triathlons We See Today

As the sport of triathlon has grown over years, so has the various types of triathlons and events that take place. Beyond standard swim, bike, run triathlons, other unique and creative types are found all over the world, such as paddle, bike, run, or during the winter ski, bike, snowshoe/run.

Of the standard types of triathlons, there are a handful of specific distances – some of which are governed by different organizations. While sprint distance triathlons are among the shortest and most common at local events (comprising of a 750-meters swim, 12.4-mile bike, and 3.1-mile run), the professional level of triathlon includes various distances and governing bodies, such as:

Olympic triathlon, which is double the distances of a sprint triathlon, came about in the late 1990s and debuted in the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney, Australia. 

International Triathlon Union (ITU), which is the chief international governing body of the sport that originated in 1989 and helped propel the Olympics’ adoption of triathlon. ITU triathlons are comprised of double Olympic long-course racing involving a 1.9-mile swim, 50-mile bike, and 12-mile run, as well as triple Olympic long-course racing, which is a 2.5-mile swim, 75-mile bike, and 19-mile run.

Ironman, which is part of The World Triathlon Corporation (WTC), which organizing both full-Ironman distance (2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike, 26.2-mile run) and half-Ironman distance, or 70.3 triathlons (1.2-mile swim, 56-mile bike, 13.1-mile run.) Today, Ironman remains to be the iconic long-distance triathlon that holds the world championship on the Kona island of Hawaii.

As you can see, the evolving spectrum of what defines a triathlon is vast with many options at various distances. The beauty of the sport is that many races cater to both professionals and amateurs who often race the same course together on the same day.

Technology Progression in Triathlon Bikes & Gear

Parallel with the progression of triathlon and its growing popularity is the technology that comes along with it. While certain pieces of gear like wetsuits and running shoes have certainly evolved, it’s triathlon bikes that have seen the most notable evolution in both technology and the speed at which races are completed by top athletes.

In the 1970s and 1980s era of triathlon, it mostly road bikes that athletes used for the bike leg of the event. But it wasn’t long before specific triathlon bikes, or time trial bikes came to be. These uniquely-designed bikes are engineered for optimal aerodynamics – both in terms of minimizing the drag of bike frame and components, but also by putting the athlete in a much lower aero position.

Specific components like aero bars, which are integrated on the handlebars to facilitate an aero position, disc wheels to minimize drag, and built-in hydration systems are just a few notable developments in the world of triathlon-specific bikes.  

As to be expected, the cost of today’s triathlon and time trial bikes has also increased. An entry-level triathlon bike today can easily cost between $1,000-$2,000 on the low end of the spectrum. As for high-end professional triathlon bikes, the price can exceed well over $10,000.

Interest in triathlon continues to grow as endurance athletes seek novel events to expand their fitness beyond just one discipline, like running, and diversify their sense of adventure. Not only are new multisport events cropping-up regularly, but race organizers are creating events that involve various disciplines and adapting courses to unique terrains.

This article was written by Tyler Tafelsky

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