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The history of the sport of triathlon in America can be traced back to the emergence of the "fitness revolution" of the mid-1970s, a decade marked by a burgeoning of athletic participation among individuals of all ages and walks of life. The "revolution" began very modestly when a number of athletes in the San Diego area of Southern California combined their varied interests in swimming, bicycling, and running into one continuous event. Consequently, the first Mission Bay Triathlon, held on Fiesta Island in September 1974, was born. It was a low-key event and was followed by a number of other multisport events that sprouted up throughout California during the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Two individuals played a pivotal role in the development of the sport—real estate entrepreneur Tom Warren and Navy commander John Collins. While on Oahu, in an argument over who was the fittest athlete, Collins suggested combining the 2.4-mile Waikiki Rough Water swim, the 112-mile Around the Island bicycle race, and the Honolulu Marathon into a single event to settle the argument—and the Hawaiian "Ironman" Triathlon was born.

Warren, winner of the 1979 race, was written up in Sports Illustrated by Barry McDermott. As noted by Scott Tinley, a key figure in the history of the triathlon from the very beginning, that article was instrumental in sparking nationwide interest in this new, "eccentric" sport. A year later, in 1980, ABC began its coverage of the Hawaiian Ironman on its Wide World of Sports television program. However, it was Julie Moss's historic crawl across the finish line at the 1982 Ironman, captured by Wide World of Sports, that galvanized public interest in the sport and ensured that the sport of triathlon would be indelibly linked to the Hawaiian Ironman.

The Hawaiian Ironman has become the premier event of the sport, with close to 1,500 people from more than 78 countries competing each year. Millions watch this event annually on network television, and in 1998 Timothy Carlson of Triathlete Magazine estimated that there were more than two million triathletes around the world, with more than 200,000 in the United States alone. For much of the history of the sport, and to a considerable extent even in the early 2000s, this has meant that triathlon itself has been viewed as an endurance sport, with the ultimate measure of triathlete status marked by participation in the Hawaiian Ironman World Championship.

On the heels of Ironman's success, the early 1980s witnessed an unprecedented proliferation of shorter-distance triathlon events, ranging from sprint-distance triathlons (500 m swim/25 km bike/5 km run) to the popular "Olympic" or International distance (1.5 km swim/40 km bike/10 km run) to the increasingly popular half-Iron distance (2 km swim/90 km bike/21 km run) events. Most of these shorter triathlon races emerged within the United States with the establishment of the U.S. Triathlon Series but quickly spread like wildfire in Europe.

A national governing body for the sport, first known as the U.S. Triathlon Federation and later as USA Triathlon, promulgated standards for participation at its sanctioned events. Such events gave thousands the opportunity to participate in the "every person's sport" without having to compete at the Ironman. This subsequently sparked and reinforced the growth of a triathlon subculture. Key attributes of this subculture focus on the value of cross-training and the overall benefits of participation that extend to all aspects of one's life, along with an emphasis on camaraderie with like-minded individuals. At the same time, the explosive growth and popularity of triathlon in the 1980s was coupled with increasing media coverage, primarily through ABC's (and later NBC's) coverage of triathlon's "Holy Grail," the Hawaiian Ironman, allowing nontriathletes an insider's glimpse into an endorphin-fueled and fascinating triathlon sub-culture. By the late 1980s, triathlon had come of age. Triathlete Magazine estimated that 1 million individuals around the world had competed in triathlons by the end of the decade.

The "typical" triathlete is a married, white-collar professional, white male in his mid-thirties who makes at least $25,000 and, more often, over $50,000 per year. The women who participate in this lifestyle likewise have similar traits. Although there are increasing numbers of women and individuals of diverse ethnic backgrounds also participating in triathlons in the early 2000s, triathlon remains a sport of white, middle-class, male participants. At the October 1982 Ironman race, 11 percent of the 850 competitors were women; by 2000, 328 out of 1,531 competitors (21.4 percent) were women. The average percentage of women competing in the Hawaiian Ironman in more recent years has fluctuated, but has always hovered around 20 percent of the total participants. This statistic is also true for women's overall participation in all triathlon races, regardless of distance.

Nevertheless, such statistics on women triathlon participants is a bit imprecise. When given an option to participate in "women only" triathlon races, women's participation at such races swells. For example, the 2002 Seattle Danskin Race set a record for number of participants at a USA Triathlon–sanctioned event for the year, with a record number of more than 3,500 women competing.

Although primary media attention and emphasis has been historically given to male triathlon competitors, it was Valerie Silk's able leadership as race director for the Hawaiian Ironman from 1981 through 1989 that established the race as a premier world event. Moreover, Julie Moss's crawl across the finish line at the October 1982 Hawaiian Ironman almost single-handedly launched the extreme-fitness makeover of thousands of baby boomers and "couch potatoes" from their sedentary lifestyles to lifestyles of fitness and passion for triathlon.

By 1989, the International Triathlon Union (ITU) was founded in Avignon, France, and the first official world triathlon championships were held. The official International or "Olympic" distance for triathlon was set by the ITU at a 1.5 km swim, a 40 km cycle, and a 10 km run, borrowing from existing events in each discipline already on the Olympic program. In 1994, at the International Olympic Committee (IOC) Congress in Paris, France, triathlon was awarded full medal status on the Olympic program, and the sport made its debut at the 2000 Summer Games in Sydney, Australia, at the "Olympic" distances. The women's event took place on the first day, with the men competing on day two—another fact that women's participation in the sport continues to bring enhanced publicity and media attention.

The 2004 Summer Games in Athens marked the second Olympics for a sport barely thirty years old, with all signs pointing to robust growth. And leading the way to the sport's continued growth will be the primary symbol for triathlon—the Hawaiian Ironman.

See also: Bicycling, Olympics, Running and Jogging, Swimming


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Jane Granskog