The triathlon is the ultimate test for any endurance athlete, with the event at the Olympic level combining a 1,500 metre swim with a 40km bike ride and a 10,000m run, which tests the versatility and capabilities of athletes to their very limits via three very different disciplines.
Because of this, many athletes who are skilled in one of the three will don the cold water swim gear and give it a go, with the first officially sanctioned modern event, the Mission Bay Triathlon on 25th September 1974 featuring a lot of distance runners who were not necessarily strong swimmers.
This initial event would inspire two of the entrants, Judy and John Collins, to set up the Hawaii Ironman, the originator of the Ironman Triathlon, one of the most difficult single-day events you can do.
When people look at the history of the Triathlon as an event, many will cite either the Collins duo or Jack Johnstone, the founder of the Mission Bay Triathlon as the inventors of the triathlon. For a long time, they believed this as well.
However, unbeknownst to them, triathlon has a much longer history, although finding the exact origins is exceptionally difficult, in no small part because the name for the event was not set until 1974.
The Three Sports
In France, at the turn of the 20th century, an event very similar to the triathlon was first run in the suburbs of Paris.
The sport, known as “Les Trois Sports” or The Three Sports was designed with a running stage and a cycling stage, much like the modern triathlon, but instead of a swimming stage, racers would use a canoe to row down the river Marne.
The record advertised the event as for “the sportsmen of the time” and at some point between 1901 and 1921 had evolved into a form far closer to the modern triathlon, with the canoeing stage replaced by a swim.
This 1921 event had a 3,000m run, a 12km bike ride, and culminated with a swim across the River Marne.
This local sport started to get picked up by the sports publication L’Auto (now L’Equipe), and as a result, local variations started to appear throughout France in the 1920s.
There was the “Course des Trois Sports” based in the southern coastal city of Marseilles, as well as “La Course des Débrouillards” (The Course of the Adaptable/Resourceful) based in Poissy in the western suburbs of Paris.
It continued to slowly spread and grow, although never to the point that it would become more than a relatively niche sport internationally. Because of this, a unified set of rules was never established and many early athletic pioneers in triathlon are sadly lost to time.
It was because of this that much of this early history is only known in retrospect. Triathlon as an event cannot trace itself back to these early events in the same way despite their similarity, but instead, it reflects the desire of many incredible athletes to try and not only be great at one event but the best at everything.