A swim club in Marseilles, France, held a three-sport event in 1921, consisting
of a bicycle leg of about 7 kilometers, a 5-kilometer run, and a 200-meter swim.
It was called the Course Des Trois Sports (Race of Three Sports).
Evidently there was no follow-up on that, though, and it was more than 50
years before the modern triathlon was created. It grew out of a run-swim
biathlon staged in San Diego by David Pain in 1972 to celebrate his 50th
The birthday biathlon was repeated in 1973. One of the competitors, Jack
Johnstone, enjoyed it so much that he decided to stage his own biathlon, and he
enlisted the help of a friend, Don Shanahan.
Shanahan suggested that a bicycle stage be added. The pair got the support of
the San Diego Track Club, which announced a "Run, Cycle, Swim Triathlon" to
be held on Sept. 25, 1974.
The event was so successful that Johnstone and Shanahan decided to hold three
more of them in 1975. In the meantime, the Coronado, CA, Optimists Club also
sponsored a triathlon. It was the Ironman, though, that really caught the public
eye and led to a major explosion of the new sport.
John Collins, a U. S. Navy officer who competed in that first triathlon, took the
idea to Hawaii, where he combined three major endurance races, the 3.8-
kilometer Waikiki Rough Water Swim, the 180-kilometer Around-Oahu Bike
Race and the 42.195-kilometer Honolulu Marathon, into a single event known as
the Ironman Triathlon.
Only 12 men finished the first Ironman, held in January of 1978. In 1979, there
were 14 finishers, including one woman.
The second race inspired a major article that ran in Sports Illustrated in May
of 1979. As a result, 108 entrants showed up for the 1980 triathlon, and so did
ABC's Wide World of Sports.
By 1982, the triathlon had become so popular that two organizations were
founded to govern the sport in the United States. They quickly merged into a
single national governing body, the United States Triathlon Association (now
USA Triathlon). Triathlon Magazine also began publishing that year.
The International Triathlon Union (ITU) was founded at Avignon, France, in
April of 1989 and the first world championship was held in August, also at
Avignon. The triathlon was added to the Goodwill Games in 1994, to the Pan-
American Games program in 1995, and to the Olympics in 2000.
There were originally 25 nations in the ITU. That number has now grown to
more than 140. USA Triathlon, which has more than 30,000 individual
memberss, sanctions about 1,000 events a year. Those events include several
offshoots of the original triathlon, among them the winter triathlon and the
aquathlon, which is a swimming race sandwiched between two runs.
The distances used in the first world championship race, a 1.5-kilometer swim,
40-kilometer bicycle ride, and 10-kilometer run, have been standard for major
events ever since. The Ironman, however, adheres to its considerably longer
distances: 2.4 miles for the swim, 112 miles for the bicycle leg, and a full
marathon of 26 miles, 385 yards, for its running leg.