Recalled: Paratriathlon Joins the Paralympics

Ten years ago this month, paratriathlon was added to the Paralympic Games program.

In the last 1o years paratriathlon has exploded and is competed at all levels all over the globe. But getting the event into the Paralympics was no simple feat. Here’s a look back at how it happened. 

The seeds for the concept of the paralympics were first planted in 1948 when 16 injured servicemen and women participated in an exhibition archery event at the London Olympic Games. Later, in 1960, some 400 athletes from 23 countries joined for the first-ever Paralympic Games, which have been held every four years since. 

Still, it wasn’t until 2010 when triathlon was folded into the mix of the Paralympic Games. Granted, compared to the other sports on the program–classic competitions like track and field, basketball, and weightlifting–triathlon was still in its infancy. But at that point, paratriathon’s participation had been swiftly trending upwards. In 1996, the International Triathlon Union (ITU) staged its first official World Championships for paratriathletes in Cleveland, Ohio, and later, gritty and powerful performances from folks like Sarah Reinertsen (who made history in 2005 by becoming the first female leg amputee to finish an Ironman Triathlon competition in 2005) lead to an explosion in the sports’ popularity all over the world. In fact, in 2009, there were more than 350 triathlon starts by paratriathletes in the UK alone, an increase of 500 per cent on the 2006 race season.  

But getting paratriathlon into the Games was not a given. The process for inclusion is complex. In 2010, the International Paralympic Committee’s (IPC) governing Board met three times in order to discuss and decide their plan for the Rio 2016 Sports  Paratriathlon was up against badminton, canoe, golf, powerchair football, taekwondo and Intellectual Disability (ID) basketball, and the IPC only approves one or two sports. So, to further bolster their chances, ITU came out with guns blazing. They submitted a 121-page document to demonstrate the global reach of the sport, culled some 4,500 fans to back the bid on Facebook, and assembled an all-star cast of triathletes to support the bid, including World Champions Emma Moffatt and Javier Gomez, joined by Ironman World Champions Mirinda Carfae and Chris McCormack. 

“I have been working extremely hard on getting the sport into the Paralympics for a number of years because I know how fantastic it would be for the Paratriathlon and how much it would benefit the Paralympic Movement,” said Sarah Springman, the the ITU vice president and executive board representative of the ITU Paratriathlon Committee, at the time. “We are confident that we have done everything possible to get Paratriathon in the Paralympics.”

Turns out, the ITU’s efforts were successful. On December 11, 2010, the IPC announced the inclusion of both paracanoe and paratriathlon in Rio, approving a 750-meter swim, 20-kilometer bike ride and a 5-kilometer run course to be competed across three divisions each for men and women, respectively. The approval set the stage for even more explosive growth in the sport, and it also carved the path towards what would be an electrifying event six years later in Copacabana Beach. (Especially for the Team USA, which led in the medal count with two golds, one silver, and one bronze.)

Since 2016, the Olympic program has changed slightly and expanded to offer athletes across various divisions a chance to compete for eight medal events. (While we will see the addition of the women’s wheelchair category, other classes have been dropped, including PTS3, or Significant Physical Impairment for both genders as well as PTS2, or Severe Physical Impairment for men.) So, if all goes to plan, the spotlight will once again shine on the sport next summer as 80 athletes demonstrate their seemingly limitless determination and grit at the 2021 Tokyo Paralympic Games.