The History of Triathlon - Part I: Learning to Swim

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Les McDonald, who attended the meeting as the President of the Canadian Federation, recalled that ETU members were interested in organizing a world governing body and they wanted the Ironman to be named the official long-distance World Championship race. Like the North Americans, Europeans had become big fans of Ironman.

Les said the implications from the meeting were that Silk should turn the event over to a world organizing body. Initially, she was willing to participate in some kind of arrangement.

The Battle to Make Ironman "Official"

As time went on, tensions grew, and at a special meeting in Dallas in February of 1987, several key players sat down together to debate and revise the constitution of FIT. It was agreed that FIT would change its name to Triathlon Federation International (TFI) and that the first general assembly meeting of the organization would be in Amsterdam that November.

On November 15, TFI was "officially" constituted with over 40 delegates from 26 countries representing four continents. (Africa had no representation.) Voting rights and organizational financial dues were hotly debated before finally being agreed upon. Joop van Zanten became president, Con O'Callagen was named Secretary and David Curnow, who had left early to fly home, was in his absence elected Treasurer.

Things got very contentious and convoluted after the November meeting, with issues of control and money at the top of the list. It was McDonald who tried to be the negotiator/peace-maker between the U.S.A. and the Europeans at a subsequent meeting in early February, 1988, in San Diego. He soon found that the situation had become unreasonable, mostly due to the European representatives' resistance to participate in finding a solution that was agreeable to everyone. The USA became unwilling to join TFI.

The straw that broke the camel's back was the issue of world championships. The Europeans wanted Ironman as the first official world championship race. Two excerpts from a 1988 Triathlete magazine column:

The final issue was the world championships. Because the Europeans so love the Ironman, they suggested that it be the site of the first long-distance championship of the new organization because of its historic importance to the sport. Ironman race chairman Valerie Silk, who had flown to Amsterdam and had given her tentative agreement to the idea, was also in San Diego. But now she had changed her mind. She declined the TFI world championship designation for 1988, saying, "If the U.S. doesn't participate in the world body, there is no world body. And if there is no world body, then the lronman can't recognize its authority." Silk then suggested holding off one or two years to get the houses of the governing bodies in order.

The Europeans were devastated. They were counting not only on the prestige of officially associating with the most important race in the world, but also the cash that it would have brought to the TFI bank account. The strings attached to being an "official" world championship were not insignificant. And this is where Les McDonald parted company with the Europeans.

Continue on to Part 2 and Part 3 for the birth of the ITU, the quest for Olympic inclusion, why draft-legal racing was created and the story behind one man's tireless dedication to the sport.


Gale Bernhardt was the 2003 USA Triathlon Pan American Games and 2004 USA Triathlon Olympic coach for both the men's and women's teams. Her first Olympic experience was as a personal cycling coach at the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games. Thousands of athletes have had successful training and racing experiences using Gale's pre-built, easy-to-follow training plans. For more information, click here. Let Gale and Active Trainer help you succeed.

Related Links:

A Brief History of the Ironman World Championships

2008: An Olympic Year

What Is Your Triathlon History?

References
Bernhardt, Gale, "Triathlon Training Basics", VeloPress, Boulder, Colorado, 2004.
Barnett, Loreen, personal e-mail correspondence with the author, December 7, 2008.
http://www.whistlermuseum.org/history/index.html
Johnson, Harald, "Shifting Alliances: Threats, bribes, leaks, lies...Welcome to the world of triathlon diplomacy", Triathlete, June 1988.
McDonald, Les, five-hour personal interview with the author at the 2008 Madrid ITU Congress, November 27, 2008.
Olivares Jr., C.J., "Power Politics: International Relations and Triathlon's Road to the Olympics", Triathlete, July, 1989.
Plant, Mike, "Trouble at Tri-Fed, Part I", Triathlete, October, 1988.
Plant, Mike, "Trouble at Tri-Fed, Part II", Triathlete, November, 1988.
Plant, Mike, "The Summit: Triathlon's Civil War Ends.", Triathlete,April, 1989.
Redman, Craig, personal interview with the author at the 2008 Madrid ITU Congress, 11/29/08.
Triathlete, "International Triathlon Conference: Fast Track to the Olympics?", November, 1988.
Triathlete, "Guarded Optimism: Avignon World Congress", June, 1988.
Triathlete, "Informer: Olympic Update", July, 1991.
http://www.triathlonhistory.com/

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