Triathlon : The reasons of it’s impressive development.

Text by : Giannis Psarelis -TriathlonWorld (Email

The International Triathlon Union, which is the International Governing Sport and is affiliated to IOC and ASOIF, considers as first Triathlon the race organised in San Diego. Many Europeans have presented documents of race taking place in Europe very early in the century.

According to ITU[1] the first triathlon event was organized in 1974 in San Diego (California, USA). However it does not seem that this is the case as in France. In 1934 the “event of the three sports” was held in Rochelle. The athletes had to swim 200m in order to traverse the channel, bike 10 km in order to go from the Rochelle port to the park of Laleu and at the end run three laps into the stadium (1200 m in total). Triathlon made its first appearances in the 1920s under different names: “les trois sports[2], La course des Debrouillards, la course des Touche a Tout…


[1] ITU: International Triathlon Union- The International Triathlon Federation who is organised by the International Olympic Committee.

[2] Les trios sports: It means the three sports

Scott Tinley says about it:”The sport of Triathlon was born on the quest for Universal cross-sport challenges. It was hatched, quite by accident, on the back of southern Callifornia’s spontaneous flair for the dramatic, far to the athletic cultural left. The significance here is that, on the pleasant shores of San Diego’s Mission Bay in 1974, there was no significance. The object was fun, the goal an athletic extension of lifestyle”.

Triathlon has become synonymous of the world cross training as it mentioned at the Time-Life publication with the title “Cross Training, ultimate fitness”: “Because it combines three endurance activities the competitive event known as the triathlon is virtually synonymous with cross training. Indeed, the increasing use of cross training by athletes and fitness enthusiasts exemplifies the growth of this varied, demanding sport, which most often combines swimming, cycling and running” (Time-Life Books Inc.)

So it doesn’t matter where exactly it was founded. It is the particular moment of time that means more.



3.2.Development by facts and figures

The sport has succeed in a very short period to develop in such a way that it has managed to:

  • Achieve Olympic Status in a very short period of time. ITU was founded in 1989 and after 5 years (Paris, September 1994) the sport has achieved inclusion at the Olympic Games schedule. People that are involved in Olympic Movement they usually say that this a “world record” (time between the foundation of the IF and the inclusion at the Olympic program).
  • Increase significantly the number of its participants. “In 1997, more than 200,000 participants competed in at least one of 1200 triathlons in the United States” (Mora, J. (1999))
  • Increase the number of the races organised in each country. As mentioned before there are more than 1200 Triathlon competitions organised at the USA. In France the official calendar of the NGB includes about 1000 races per year.
  • To attract more and more participants at the races. “Triathlon race directors report continued increases in participation. The Mrs. Ts. Triathlon in Chicago usually reports numbers in excess of 4000 entries”.(Mora, J). In 2012 there are race that attract about 10.000



We have tried to mention some other reasons which justified the development of Triathlon:

1.Quest for adventure

“The 20th century athlete is hungry –even famished- for adventure. Many sports enthusiasts have sampled  skiing, backpacking, tennis, scuba diving, and other activities in their quest for physical and physiological self-mastery. In the youth they were regimented on the school yards and in physical education classes. Soccer, baseball, basketball, football, track and field- none supplied the answers to their athletic needs.

After exploring a variety of sports from childhood or adolescence to adulthood, many athletes discover that true adventure is part of themselves, not the sports they play. That is what Triathlon promises: an adventure for the body, an exploration into vast uncharted territory of the self”.(Edwards, S.1983)

It’s interesting to mention that many Triathlon magazines also cover the so-called adventure races, such as “Eco-Challenge”, “Raid Gauloise”, where the participants compete in many disciplines such as running, mountain-biking, horse riding, canoeing, rafting and many others. These events last for many days and take place away from the civilised world in different exotic locale around the world.  In 1997 when “Raid Gauloise” took place in South Africa a local person who has rent his horses to the race organisers has mentioned about the race participants : “Those ‘stupid people’ will pay for my children’s school for the next five years.


2.Discover the limits of human performance.

“How much can we do, and how far can we go? What ultimately stops the human being from being able to continue, to move, to perform at a level of adequacy? Has the event been designed that challenges our untapped potential? When will the ultimate test of human aerobic talent will be created?”(Edwards,S. 1983)


3.Having fun

Greg Welch, winner of the 1994 Ironman winner has said : “ Watching the triathlon, I was amazed to see that people were actually having fun. Up until that time, fun for me was going to an amusement park or simply sitting back with friends sharing stories over beers.”(Jonas, S.1996)


“For many people, fitness is drudgery. It’s a daily  or weekly chore, something that has to be done on a regular basis, like cleaning the house, mowing the lawn, or paying the bill. You see it all the time in health clubs- frustrated men and women who push themselves too hard for the sole purpose of burning calories or shaving those love handles. They never look like they’re having fun, which is probably why most New Years’ fitness resolutions don’t last past the first day of spring. Exercise don’t have to be that way. Yes, exercise can be fun, especially when you have three sports to work with. Sure, you’ll have to work hard and get your heart rate up now and then, but who says it has to be drudgery?” (Mora,J.1999)

4.Help people on everyday’s life

Handle the stress

Jack Ramsay who was the Head coach for Indiana Pacers mentions that“Along with the enjoyment of the training and competition, the well being  that I felt helped me to better handle the stress inherent in a professional coaching life” (Allen’s M.,1988)

Create emotions

“I’ve always enjoyed hearing an athlete talk about how sports has affected his or her life. It’s not just the statistics and the results that are important. What we remember most are those emotional moments when the underdog won or favourites fell short of that ultimate championship” (Allen,M. 1988)


Learn to deal with the unexpected

“What makes down the line events like the Ironman so difficult is that no matter how ready you are, you are, you have to deal with the unexpected. Your car might break down on the way to the final exam, or you might come down with the flu before a major presentation. That’s what they call the luck of the draw. All you can do is prepare to do the best of your ability and then roll the dice. Achieving that goal may come down to how well you deal with the adversity that comes your way” (Allen, M. 1988)


5.Outdoor activity (Close to nature)

“Triathlons give you the refreshing, invigorating feeling of swimming in a lake or ocean, cycling on roads that take you through striking countryside scenery, and running on a pristine trail or path. How else can you experience nature in three distinct ways, all in the span of a few hours or less?” (Mora,J. 1999)


6.It’s an addictive process

Many people have started Triathlon for having fun but they have found out in the process that wanted to train more. Are the endorphins which are released and make people want to train more ?

Julian Jenkinson one of the most talented Long-distance Triathletes comments about it: “The problem with training is that is addictive. The more you train and the harder you train, the more endorphins (which are the body’s natural pain killers and not similar to heroin but stronger) you produce. Just like heroin, endorphins are addictive. You get hooked on them into exercise junky. the more exercise you do the more you need to satisfy yourself. “It just started with a fun aerobics class but I couldn’t say NO and ended up racing Ironman, man”. So Be careful out there or you will shortly  be underdoing rehabilation therapy to return to the real world”.

And Mr.Jenkinson adds: “”No training means no endorphins which results in two things. Firstly, that lovely pain killing effect disappears and all of a sudden that little niggle that was stopping you from running too fast is now agony even when you walk. Secondly, without your daily fix of exercise you start to get nasty withdrawal symptoms.

You may not realise this, but all your friends that have to put up with your bad temper certainly will. In fact if this injury lasts any longer than a few weeks, you won’t have any friends left. Fortunately, as with heroin abuse (so they tell me ), you can wear yourself of the drug. …Yes there is life outside triathlon. (Triathlete magazine, UK version –number 168).



Sociological explanation of this development

I would like to mention that I’ll use Marxism, Figuration but also Functionalism to prove this development. I’ll use these three perspectives to explain Triathlon development and on this section I would like to make a short brief on each of them and I will also try to explain briefly how each of them could interpret the development of Triathlon.

Figurational perspective

What are the reasons for this impressive development? Why so many people have been involved with Triathlon? What is the culture behind the sport? Why so many people are so excited to participate in the so physically demanding Triathlon events, especially the Ironman[1] events where participants have to swim 3.8 km, bike 180 km and run 42,2 km ? As I was making these questions to myself two  books, one  written by Mark Allen and the other from Tinley  came at my hands.

Mark Allen, who has won 6 times the prestigious Ironman of Hawaii[2] comments: “ The stress in my life is physical. The stress in the business world is emotional, but it can be just as demanding” and he adds “ I’ve always enjoyed hearing an athlete talk about how sports has affected his or her life. It’s not just the statistics and the results that are important. What we remember most are those emotional moments when the underdog won or the favourites fell short of the ultimate championship” (Allen, M.(1988)).

Scott Tinley, one of the greatest Triathletes of all times (winner of the Hawaii Ironman and one of the Big Four), states: “The common denominator is to go one step, if not many, beyond what is “comfortable bearable”. The further one goes, the harder ones pushes, and the greater the rewards that lie out there in some zone of accomplishment…Looking back 100 years, people didn’t ride their bikes 80 miles for fun. Life, especially outside the larger cities, was hard enough. For those who settled the West, every day was an endurance event. Growing or hunting food, surviving freezing winters and avoiding deadly disease were 19th century triathlons. As the country grew and technology developed, comforts increased and life indeed became easier- at least physically. In a largely agricultural society, where men and women worked long hard hours raising crops or livestock, you didn’t have to go to an aerobics class to get a little exercise. But in urban life today, you don’t have the personal satisfaction that comes with hunting for your dinner or building a roof for your family’s home”. (Tinley, S.(19995)).

It is probably what Stevenson and Nixon state by “ interpret Elias and Dunning “In the drab and dreary existence that is characterized as everyday life they suggest that a man can find sufficient excitement through sport to make his life bearable”. Thus, sport can be seen to be useful in the management and handling of tension and conflict”. (Malcolm D. and Sheard K.)

So Mark Allen and Scott Tinley explain that the development of endurance sports as part of the civilisation process. That’s why I think that is necessary to use this perspective for my dissertation.




There are comments from athletes, published at various magazines, that Triathlon teaches athletes “the real values” of the society and that “the harder you try, the more consistent-patient  you are with your training the better results you will get” (ITU website: “Triathlon is a ‘lifestyle’ sport ­ it exudes vitality and charisma…Triathlon is ‘fresh’, ‘new’ and ‘exciting’ as well as ‘tough’, ‘demanding’ and ‘gruelling’”)

When Triathlon coaches are asked why a young person should take up on Triathlon they are usually saying that by practising a “hard and demanding  sport like Triathlon” they will be able to learn and adapt more easily to  the values of our society like have discipline and persistence to the accomplishment of a goal,…”.



As far as Marxism is concerned I do not expect athletes from Western societies (where Triathlon has really developed) to admit that the people in power promote Time-Energy consuming activities in order to de-orientate people from the real every day’s problem. You can not expect from any member of the “Triathlon industry” to admit that the system use them as labours nor that they are part of an industry that “prepare people to be more productive”(As I have mentioned previously Triathlon is described as “tough, demanding and gruelling’).

I consider it as useful to use this perspective as the sport has developed mostly in Western societies.


The interesting issue is that with any sociological perspective used the development  of Endurance sports (Triathlon is the best example of them) can be well justified.

[1] Ironman: The competition was named Ironman because the winner of the first race which was organised in Hawaii has won as prize a small statue of a man made from Iron.

[2] The Ironman of Hawaii is considered the most prestigious Triathlon competition.


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Ο κ. Γιάννης Ψαρέλης είναι από τα ιστορικά στελέχη του Τριάθλου στη χώρα μας έχοντας παρακολουθήσει και συμμετέχει έντονά στη διοικητική ανάπτυξη του αθλήματος. Χρόνια μέλος των εθνικών ομάδων ,εκπρόσωπος των αθλητών στην τεχνική επιτροπή του αθλήματος, υπεύθυνος χάραξης των διαδρομών αγώνων της Ομοσπονδίας μεταξύ των οποίων και της Ολυμπιακής διαδρομής του 2004 στη Βουλιαγμένη,έχει διατελέσει γενικός γραμματέας της Ομοσπονδίας Τριάθλου και εκπρόσωπος αυτής στην Ελληνική Ολυμπιακή Επιτροπή. Έχει πληθώρα προπονητικών πιστοποιήσεων στα αθλήματα αντοχής από εθνικές ομοσπονδίες και συνδέσμους προπονητών. Έχει παρακολουθήσει πλήθος εκπαιδευτικών σεμιναρίων της Διεθνούς Ομοσπονδίας Τριάθλου τόσο για Διοργανωτές Αγώνων όσο και κριτές. Επίσης έχει παρακολουθήσει πολυήμερα σεμινάρια για διοργανωτές αγώνων στη Λοζάνη κάτω από την εποπτεία της ΔΟΕ. Έχει σπουδάσει Χημεία στο Εθνικό και Καποδιστριακό Πανεπιστήμιο Αθηνών. Έχει τους εξής πανεπιστημιακούς μεταπτυχιακούς τίτλους : Αθλητική Διοίκηση (Παν.Lyon1-Masters in Sport Organisations Management – πρόγραμμα αναγνωρισμένο από την Διεθνή Ολυμπιακή Επιτροπή), Αθλητική Διοίκηση (Παν. Leicester), Διοίκηση Επιχειρήσεων (Οικονομικό Πανεπιστήμιο Αθηνών- Executive MBA), Μάρκετινγκ & Επικοινωνία (Οικονομικό Πανεπιστήμιο Αθηνών -MSc in Marketing and communication with New Technologies). Προπονητής Τριάθλου Προπονητής Τριάθλου Ο κ.Γιάννης Ψαρέλης έχει διατελέσει Διοικητικός Υπεύθυνος καθώς και Υπεύθυνος Στρατηγικής & Ανάπτυξης στο Sports Excellence (πρόγραμμα που πραγματοποιείται υπό την επιστημονική επίβλεψη της Α’ Ορθοπαιδικής Κλινικής του ΕΚΠΑ, όντας εγκεκριμένο κέντρο από τον Διεθνή Σύνδεσμο Κέντρων Υψηλού Αθλητισμού) έχοντας την επιστημονική επίβλεψη μέχρι και 1800 επίλεκτων αθλητών και αθλητριών προεθνικών και εθνικών ομάδων έως 18 ετών καθώς και των μελών της Προ-Ολυμπαικής προετοιμασίας για τους ΟΑ του Τόκυο (με μνημόνιο συνεργασίας με την ΕΟΕ). Σε επίπεδο ακαδημαϊκό/ ερευνητικό με σημείο αναφοράς μεταπτυχιακές και διδακτορικές σπουδές ασχολείται κυρίως με την επίδραση των προϊόντων νεοπρενίου/ wetsuit στην κολύμβηση τριαθλητών καθώς και με την μεγιστοποίηση της απόδοσης των αθλητών στο mixed relay του Τριάθλου. Από το 1990 συμμετέχει ως εισηγητής σε πλήθος εκπαιδευτικά προγράμματα επιμόρφωσης προπονητών, καθηγητών Φυσικής Αγωγής, γονέων αλλά και αθλητών είτε αναπτύσσοντας τεχνικά θέματα που αφορούν το Τρίαθλο είτε θέματα που αφορούν την ηθική στον αθλητισμό και το αντι-ντόπινγκ. Αρθογραφεί σε πλήθος αθλητικών ιστοσελίδων και περιοδικών σε θέματα που αφορούν την προπονητική, τους κανονισμούς του Τριάθλου ή θέματα ηθικής/ κοινωνιολογίας του αθλητισμού. Ο ίδιος σε συνεργασία με αθλητικούς φορείς (Ομοσπονδίας, Σωματείων και Αθλητικών Οργανισμών των Δήμων) από το 1990 έως σήμερα έχει σχεδιάσει και διοργανώσει έχοντας την επίβλεψη πάνω από 50 αγώνων σε όλη την Ελλάδα (Αθήνα, Χανιά, Ρέθυμνο, Τρίπολη, Θεσσαλονίκη, Σέρρες, Πιερία κ.λπ.)