The History of Triathlon - Part I: Learning to Swim

Similar to any interesting lead character in a good movie or novel, Les has been described by different people in multiple ways. He's been characterized as a hero, a bully, a peace-maker, a rabble-rouser, tenacious, athletic, a rule-breaker, benevolent and a politician, to name just a few. How you might describe Les depends on the point in time when you met him and under what circumstances.

Of Scottish-Irish heritage, Les McDonald was born in Felling, England, in 1933. His family lived modestly and many of them worked in the coal mines. His first exposure to athletic endurance was through a school teacher. This particular teacher took small groups of students mountain climbing and, Les says, that this is where he first fell in love with the outdoors and exercise.

While serving military duty for England in the Korean War, Les met French Canadians that encouraged him to immigrate to Canada after the war to find good work. They told him he could make a better wage than in England, one that was more suitable for a man looking to support a family. He was also enticed by the stories of the Rocky Mountains and outdoor adventure.

It wasn't long before Les's athletic interests had him doing triathlons. He traveled to multiple Ironman races, going on to be a five-time Ironman World Champion in his age group.

A list of connections including the Alta Lake Sports Club, participation in the sport of triathlon, his ability to organize a federation organization and his knack for negotiating as an experienced labor union leader led to a call that would change Les's life and the sport of triathlon forever.

What would you say if the president of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), a man you only knew by name and title, called you on the telephone and after casual conversation asked, "Will you help me get the sport of triathlon into the Olympic Games?"

Les McDonald said, "Yes" without knowing how to begin. He had no idea that by accepting the request made by Juan Antonio Samaranch he would completely change his life's course and the lives of many others.

Chasing the Olympic Dream

Within the year or so prior to the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games, IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch was visiting the host city. He switched on the television and saw this unusual sport, something he hadn't seen before. He was watching the broadcast of one of the United States Triathlon Series (USTS) events. He said to Gunnar Ericksson, an IOC member in Sweden, "That sport should be in the Olympic Games."

Samaranch began investigating the sport, including its various connections and leaders. That research led to a phone call to Les McDonald. Les recalled that the phone rang one morning at 8:00 a.m. The voice on the other end said, "Hello, this is Juan Antonio Samaranch. How are you?"

Completely bewildered as to why the president of the IOC would be calling him, Les continued to answer questions about the weather and whether or not he had dinner yet or not. After explaining that he hadn't had breakfast yet, Les asked bluntly, "Why are you calling me?"

The voice on the other end of the phone said, "Will you help me get the sport of triathlon into the Olympic Games?"

Les said yes and set about learning what needed to be done to get a new sport on the Olympic program. To help him navigate the IOC processes, Samaranch asked Erikson to assist Les. One of the items that needed to be done was the establishment of an international governing body. Coincidentally, it turns out that several others were also interested in the creation of a global federation.

The Road to Global Governance

In the U.S.A. in 1982, Carl Thomas (then-chairman of the Tri-Fed international committee and co-creator of the USTS event series) began promoting the idea of a world governing body. He named the organization Federation International Triathlon (FIT). Joining him on the international committee was Ironman race director Valerie Silk and San Diego attorney David Curnow. Thomas, with the help of Bob Helmick from the U.S. Olympic Committee, drafted a constitution for the FIT organization in 1983.

In 1984, representatives from the U.S.A., Canada, Australia and New Zealand traveled to Almere, Holland, for a meeting with the European Triathlon Union (ETU), a confederation of Europe's triathlon associations. ETU President Joop Van Zanten (Holland) and Secretary Con O'Callagan (Ireland) were also interested in forming a unified international body, but were not keen on joining the American-initiated FIT.

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