Inside the birth of Olympic triathlon with ITU President Marisol Casado.
The International Triathlon Union turns 25 on April 1—no joke! In honor of this milestone, we’re taking a look back at the history of the Olympic distance with the help of current ITU president Marisol Casado, who has been a part of the sport’s Olympic movement since the beginning.
It all started in 1988, when triathlon’s meteoric growth caught the attention of then International Olympic Committee president, Juan Antonio Samaranch. The word “triathlon” had been added to Webster’s New Collegiate dictionary in 1983, Nike had featured pro triathlete Joann Ernst in national ad campaigns in 1985 and national triathlon federations were springing up all over the world. Samaranch decided the sport was ripe for an Olympic debut and should be included as soon as possible.
At that point, there was no standard triathlon distance recognized internationally. In the mid-1980s, race producers Jim Curl and Carl Thomas began putting on races with a 1.5K swim, 40K bike, 10K run, but the combo was not yet the norm. Ironman had a set distance, Curl’s U.S. Triathlon Series evolved into having a set distance and then there was any and everything else. The IOC created a committee to figure out what triathlon would look like as an Olympic sport and placed it under the guidance of then-IOC Vice President, Gunnar Ericsson.
A year later, 30 national triathlon federations gathered in the southeastern French city of Avignon to hash out triathlon’s Olympic details. The International Triathlon Union was founded (on April 1—no joke!) during that intense two-day summit, as were plans for triathlon’s first World Championship event, which would feature the sport’s newly official Olympic distance.
[Side note: Triathlon almost shared leadership with modern pentathlon. Before Avignon, “we had another attempt in Amsterdam to create a federation, to be together with modern pentathlon,” Casado says. “But we decided at that point that triathlon would not be together with modern pentathlon.”]
Ericsson and the IOC heavily influenced triathlon’s Olympic distance and execution. “Fifteen-hundred is [an Olympic] competition in swimming, 40K is a competition in cycling, and 10K is a competition in track and field,” Casado says. “Someone put this on the table, and everyone thought it was good, because [the distances] were something that everyone understood.” Olympic viewers could already identify a fast 10K time; they’d be blown away by how quickly triathletes could run off of the bike.
The hard part, Casado says, wasn’t setting the distance. “The real challenge was the drafting. That creates problems still. There are people who think that is not correct,” Casado says. “But that was a condition very highly recommended by the International Olympic Committee in order to have a sport that was able to televise easily, and also to avoid a big number of officials and policemen. Also, it’s spectator friendly.”
The distances and the drafting, in effect, were determined to make the sport relevant to onlookers who don’t compete in triathlon—spectators who would be dazzled by bike tactics, blazing-fast transition times, and even faster 10Ks.
Four months after ITU was formed, triathlon’s first World Championships were held in Avignon. “Mark Allen was the winner. Erin Baker was the winner for women, and it was a very critical moment, because at that moment, we were all together,” Casado says. Triathletes around the world were united in a distance, and elite triathletes with Olympic hopes knew what to work on.
Triathlon made its Olympic debut at the 2000 games in Sydney, bringing to fruition more than a decade of dreaming and planning under the guidance of ITU, which now boasts more than 170 affiliated national federations.
So there you have it. ITU and international recognition of triathlon’s Olympic distance both turn 25 on April 1. Looking forward to the next 25 years, “I think the spirit of the sport as it is now will be maintained,” Casado says, “as long as we are fair, stay fresh, and are open to change.”