Triathlon Turns 40: A Brief History

The very first Olympics in Athens began with the marathon. Both swimming and cycling were contested, also, in the first modern Olympic Games in 1896.

It was 104 years later—in 2000 in Sydney—that triathlon had reached the level of international participation and recognition that it made its debut as an official Olympic sport. In the scheme of things, though, this was quite remarkable, given that triathlon was just 26 years old.

It is widely recognized that the birth of triathlon occurred in 1974 in San Diego, California. Prior to this, there were several swim-run "biathlons," primarily regarded as lifeguard competitions; and, individuals may have created their own unique triathlons involving swimming, biking, and running in a single day.

However, the brainchild of Don Shanahan and Jack Johnstone in Southern California is truly when and where it all began.

More: New Book Provides Insight Into Triathlon History

Shanahan, a runner, lawyer, and member of the board of directors for the San Diego Track Club, designed the course on Fiesta Island, near where he and Johnstone lived. The 46 "triathletes" who began the race on a Wednesday at 5:45 p.m., ran approximately 5 to 6 miles (broken up into a couple of segments), biked 5 miles, and swam 500 yards. Bill Phillips, 44, won the Mission Bay Triathlon in a time of 55:44. The first female "triathlon champion" was Eileen Waters, with a time of 1:11:43. The official notice for the event, in the September issue of the San Diego Track Club Newsletter for the event read:


The First Annual Mission Bay Triathlon, a race consisting of segments of running, bicycle riding, and swimming, will start at the causeway to Fiesta Island at 5:45 P.M. September 25. The event will consist of 6 miles of running (longest continuous stretch, 2.8 miles), 5 miles of bicycle riding (all at once), and 500 yards of swimming (longest continuous stretch, 250 yards). Approximately 2 miles of running will be barefoot on grass and sand. Each participant must bring his own bicycle. Awards will be presented to the first five finishers. For further details contact Don Shanahan or Jack Johnstone.

Included among the 46 original participants were John and Judy Collins, and their son, Michael. John Collins would later go on to fame in the sport for coming up with the idea and format for the most famous race in triathlon—the Ironman World Championships.

More: A Brief History of the Ironman World Championships

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