The Hidden History Behind Triathlons

Ironman Triathlon Race



/trʌɪˈaθlɒn, trʌɪˈaθlən/


An athletic contest consisting of three different events, typically swimming, cycling, and long-distance running.

Where Did the Triathlon Originate?

Well, that’s a good question. As with many popular sports, there is more than one story about how the triathlon came to exist. Some claim that the triathlon had its origins across the pond in France while others claim the sport originated in San Diego.

Tri-Sports in France

Early records reveal a tri-sport event in 1902 featuring running, cycling and canoeing. Not quite the sports of the modern day triathlon, but two out of three wasn’t a bad start. In 1920, the French newspaper L´Auto reported a competition called “Les Trois Sports” with a 3 km run, 12 km bike, and a swim across the channel Marne. These competitions occurred a long time before the term ‘triathlon’ was even coined.

In 1921, a swimming club in Marseilles held a tri-sport event “Course Des Trois Sports” (Race of Three Sports) featuring a run of 3 km, a bike leg of 12 km ending with a swim across the Marne canal.   Another event was held in 1921 in Marseilles with the order of events bike-run-swim. Among the participants was American athlete Charles Sector. There are also articles in French newspapers about a race in Marseille in 1927.

There have been periodic reports of hobby races in France consisting of the biking, swimming and running in various orders since. 1934 witnessed “Les Trois Sports” in Rochelle, with a canal crossing (app. 200 m), a 12 km bike event in the harbour of Rochelle and the adjacent park Laleu and a 1200 m run in the stadium André-Barbeau.

A lot of these events ended with the swim leg, thought being that racers could cool off after the grind of the running and biking leg. This eventually changed over time when people realized the hazards of swimming when tired.

Where Did the Modern Day Triathlon Come From?

Modern TriathletesBill Phillips, Don Shanahan, and Jack Johnstone


Triathlon, as we know it today, was born in San Diego. It was directed and conceived by Jack Johnstone and Don Shanahan. The early 1970s saw the revival of jogging as a way to stay fit and to keep waistlines down.  Competitive road running races were small scale affairs, often held by local clubs. It was in 1973 that Jack Johnstone heard of the David Pain Birthday Biathlon comprising of a 4.5 mile run followed by a quarter mile swim (he claims that swim leg was really about 200 to 300 yards). A keen amateur swimmer, the event piqued his interest and he participated for a couple of years.

When he decided to host a similar event of his own, albeit with a longer swim, the San Diego Track Club Chairman put him in touch with Don Shanahan – “who also had some strange event in mind”.  Don wanted to include a biking leg and so the triathlon was born!

When was the First Modern Triathlon Held?

The Mission Bay Triathlon was held on Wednesday, September 25th, 1974, consisting of 6 miles of running, 5 miles of bicycle riding and 500 yards of swimming. Judy and John Collins, who would later bring the sport to international fame, participated in this race. The Coronado Optimist Club began to sponsor triathlons a short time later. Their races started with biking, followed by an ocean swim and a run.

How Did the Ironman Originate?

John and Judy Collins RunningJohn and Judy Collins


It was the Ironman competition that really took the world by storm.

Hawaii in the 1970s was home to three of the toughest endurance races in America then: The Waikiki Rough Water Swim (2.4 miles), The Oahu Bike Race (112 miles) and the Honolulu Marathon (26.2 miles). John Collins, a Naval Officer, laid down a challenge for others to compete in an event combining all three of these races. In 1978, 15 people accepted his challenge and the rest is history.

In 1989, the International Triathlon Union (ITU) was founded in Avignon, France, and the first official world championships were held.

When Did Triathlons Start at the Olympics?

The sport made its debut at the Olympic Games held in Sydney in 2000 with a 1500 m swim, a 40 km cycle, and a 10 km run—taken from existing events in each discipline already on the Olympic program. The para-triathlon made an entry into the Olympic Games in 2016 in Rio.

Triathlons are now held all over the world, for people of all ages and abilities over varying distances. Nearly four million Americans have participated in triathlons within just one year!  Since its conception, the triathlon has become a sport that has brought countless people together to enjoy the outdoors, stay fit and have a great time doing it.

So this September 25th, let us raise our protein shakes in tribute to a sport that hasn’t stopped growing since its humble beginnings in the 70s.

Just Wetsuits is proud to partner with triathletes in each incredible race they participate in. We offer some of the best triathlon wetsuits for sale and for rent, along with triathlon gear and accessories. If you need expert advice about triathlete wetsuits for your upcoming race, get in touch with us today.

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