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Olympics

Recalled: The Origins of the Olympic-Distance Triathlon

The “international standard” went on to debut at the Olympic Games in 2000.

Ever wonder why the Olympic-distance triathlon is called just that? The obvious answer may be because the distance–a 1.5K swim, a 40K bike, and a 10K run–is contested at the Olympic games. But the mid-distance format was actually formally introduced in 1984, long before triathlon made its debut at the 2000 Olympics. 

The story begins around 1980, when Carl Thomas, a marketing executive at Speedo, looked to launch a new triathlon series that would be more accessible to the everyday athlete, as opposed to the arduous Ironman event. At the same time, Thomas, an All-American swimmer and water polo player while at UCLA who grew up “fascinated by the Olympic games” and narrowly missed berths to Team USA in both sports, was passionate about adding triathlon to the Olympic lineup. He reasoned that the shorter distance (which took elites about the same time as top runners would complete a marathon) was a friendlier format for the games than an all-day Ironman affair. 

And so, Thomas became laser-focused on popularizing what he called the “international standard” or “Olympic” distance of triathlon, the interchangeable titles reflecting that the 1.5K swim, 40K bike, and 10K run were standard distances of racing in the respective sports across the globe, and taken from existing events in each discipline already on the Olympic program. Alongside Davis, California-based sports promoter Jim Curl, Thomas launched the United States Triathlon Series (USTS) in the early 80s, which attracted the likes of multisport legends including Scott Tinley, Julie Moss, Kathleen McCartney, and Dave Scott.

“At the time we were trying to figure out how to do the transitions,” recalled Scott of the series’ early days. “There weren’t any rules established. Everyone kind of agreed we would go from the swim into transition and strip down into our cycling gear. A number of spectators commented they really enjoyed that first triathlon and especially watching the transition area.”

Despite its wild west beginnings, USTS (which picked up Bud Light as its title sponsor along the way) grew from its original five cities to 120 events in 30 cities, not only drawing elites but hundreds of thousands of weekend warriors competing in the age-group events. (A 1988 headline from the South Florida Sun Sentinel screamed “REAL PEOPLE CAN COMPETE IN BUD LIGHT.”) The series, which also introduced wave starts to the sport in addition to popularizing the Olympic distance, gained enough momentum in the U.S. that Thomas was confident to take the format to a broader stage. While simultaneously spearheading the establishment of the sport’s governing bodies (what became both USAT and the International Triathlon Union—now called World Triathlon), Thomas fought for the format to be added to the Olympic menu, despite pushback from other countries.

“It was North American versus the rest of the world,” Thomas told Inner Voice Media last May. “There was a huge contingent, mostly in Europe, which believed the Ironman was the holy grail. I lead the charge that from a practical perspective…that the Ironman triathlon [had] zero chance of making it onto the Olympic program. Just because of its pure length and requirement from an athletic perspective…and the logistical nightmare of putting on an Ironman event in an Olympic city. That was a drumbeat I relentlessly pounded for all of those years. In the end…that persistence, that belief, and the vision of the format held up.”

Granted, it took time for Thomas’s vision to come to fruition. While the Olympic distance format continued to pick up steam among age-groupers and pros throughout the 1980s, it would be years (and plenty of leg work on the part of Thomas and ITU founding President Les McDonald) before the International Olympic Committee (IOC) recognized the ITU and, ultimately, give the nod to triathlon as a medal sport.

The USTS closed up shop in 1993 following its National Championships in Maui, but by then what began as a grassroots effort had transformed into an internationally beloved event–and one that would only continue to thrive after its debut at the Sydney Olympics in 2000. By then, Thomas had firmly cemented his status as a “godfather” of triathlon, eventually being inducted into both the ITU and USAT Hall of Fames.

“It was the confluence of being an athlete, a marketer, and someone who understood what it took to organize the sport,” Thomas said of his influence in the sport, adding,“triathlon came around at the perfect time…and the [Olympic] distance struck the perfect chord.” 

Athletes compete in the first-ever Olympic triathlon in Sydney on Sept. 16, 2000. Photo: Triathlon.org