It’s a long way from Tulsa, Okla., to Lausanne, Switzerland, but for triathlete Amanda Erwin, the distance in miles was nothing compared with the difference between racing in her home state and competing among the Alps.
“Racing in Europe was incredible,” recalls the 34- year-old Tulsa native, who journeyed to Lausanne in 2006 to compete in the International Triathlon Union (ITU) Triathlon World Championships. “In America, there are so many mainstream sports, that people don’t pay much attention to running, cycling and triathlon. In Europe, there were so many spectators and people yelling for different teams in different languages.”
Five years earlier, Erwin had crossed the border to Alberta, Canada, to race in the ITU championships in Edmonton, but the Switzerland experience was so much more compelling that she’s already thinking about making another trip across the pond.
Nick Morales has been thinking the same thing. Since 2006, Morales has traveled to Florianópolis for Ironman Brazil, to Cancun, Mexico, and Mar del Plata, Argentina, to race in half-Ironman competitions, and to Zurich for Ironman Switzerland. Morales, 40, a self-proclaimed “I.T. guy” in Minneapolis, Minn., has always been an avid traveler, but increasingly he’s finding events on the ever- expanding global triathlon circuit to be attractive destina- tions. Indeed, he’s so excited about the trend that he’s created a Web site designed to make it easier for anyone who wants to to compete abroad.
Erwin and Morales are part of a growing segment of American triathletes taking advantage of the sport’s increas- ingly global reach. From Estonia to South Africa, triathletes are swimming, biking and running in preparation for races that now dot six continents. And Americans are packing up their swimsuits, bikes and running shoes to follow their com- petitive — and adventurous — natures all around the world.
Spreading the Word
The 46 members of the San Diego Track Club who gathered on Sept. 25, 1974, for the world’s first scheduled triathlon surely never fathomed that their little event — held solely as a fun way to cross-train — would eventually become an Olympic event and appeal to people the world over.
“The first triathlon was put together in a hurry, and many of the participants competed just for the novelty of it,” recalls Jack Johnstone, one of the race organizers. “But we put on three more the following summer, and by that time there were athletes who began considering triathlon their major sport.”
Among these early devotees was John Collins, who finished an undistinguished 35th in that inaugural race, but went on to become the sport’s first great promoter, organizing an event that would bring triathlon to the world’s stage for the first time: the Ironman Hawaii.
While the first triathlons were short distances, with various combinations of swimming, biking and running, Collins, a retired Navy commander, challenged friends to combine three of Oahu’s most grueling events into one race: the 2.4-mile Waikiki Roughwater Swim, the 112-mile Around Oahu Bike Race, and the 26.2-mile Honolulu Marathon. In February 1978, 12 men finished the first Ironman challenge, creating enough buzz to attract the attention of Sports Illustrated editors, who sent a reporter to cover the race the following year.
The resulting story was not particularly kind. It portrayed the Ironman as a quirky event that required a certain amount of derangement, noting that the 15 finish- ers included John Dunbar, who placed second dressed as Superman, and a character dubbed “Cowman,” for the horns he wore on his head. But the article generated hundreds of inquiries from triathletes around the world. In 1980, the Ironman Hawaii included 108 participants and caught the attention of producers from ABC’s Wide World of Sports.
ABC’s national television coverage of the 1982 Ironman — featuring Julie Moss’s legendary crawl to the finish — is still regarded as the seminal event in triathlon’s rapid spike in popularity and defined the sport as one in which competing was more important than winning.
Still, people who watched that day exactly didn’t rush out to enter Ironman: Its long distances proved a daunting barrier. The event did, however, plant a seed that sprouted later in 1982, when the newly formed U.S. Triathlon Series (USTS) made triathlon accessible and legitimized the sport by paying prize money to top finishers.
The race organizers were Carl Thomas, a marketing executive at Speedo looking for a way to expand his customer base for swim apparel and accessories, and Jim Curl, an endurance runner and lawyer with the notable experience of having completed one triathlon.
The USTS was part of a catalyst that organized triathlon’s first governing body (the U.S. Triathlon Association, now USA Triathlon) and created a “reasonable” race length, ultimately establishing the Olympic-distance triathlon, so named because it borrowed standard Olympic distances for each leg of the race: a 1,500-meter swim, 40K bike and 10K run.
“We were cognizant of the fact [that] we wanted to create a distance that was challenging and required a certain level of fitness, but was still approachable and attainable for the weekend warrior,” Thomas recalls. “The USTS series opened triathlon for all men and women.” And with that, races started cropping up all over the country.
As the USTS was launching, Barry Frank, a sports producer and creator of television shows such as Survival of the Fittest and World’s Strongest Man for TWI, the media arm of the sports marketing and management company IMG, was developing a new made-for-TV-triathlon in Europe. In November 1982, the first Nice Triathlon (also known as the Nice World Championships) hosted 61 competitors, mostly Americans. Owned and produced by IMG, the event offered the winner the largest prize purse the sport had ever seen: $15,000.
Scott Tinley, author of Triathlon: A Personal History (VeloPress, 1998), competed in that race and believes the event was one of the catalysts that spurred triathlon’s international growth. “IMG had all the distribution channels and networks in place, so people all over the world watched it on TV. It was a small race, but it had a huge effect,” he says.
France quickly adopted the new sport. With their estab- lished affection for cycling, the French wasted no time setting up a club system for triathlon that nurtured the develop- ment of young and elite athletes. “Every village in France has a racing club,” says Loreen Barnett, executive director of the Vancouver-based ITU, of the 500-plus clubs there.
From there, triathlon spread as athletes who picked it up in France returned home to their respective countries. Aleck Hunter, for instance, caught the “triathlon bug” when he competed in Nice in the season of 1982. The next year, he teamed up with two fellow British athletes to form the British Triathlon Association (now the British Triathlon Federation).
And while Thomas was busy kicking off triathlons in the States, he was also networking and organizing races elsewhere. “While creating USTS, we developed trademarks and operating manuals, so that if and when the opportu- nity presented itself, we’d have the required elements to license the technology and know-how elsewhere — which we did in Japan in 1984,” he says.
But that was only the beginning: As early as 1983, Canadian enthusiasts had established the Canadian International Ultra Triathlon (now Ironman Canada) in Penticton, British Columbia, and by 1985, New Zealand and Japan had also hosted Ironman events. The Japan Triathlon Series held shorter races in four major cities, and other new races included the French Triathlon Series, Le Coq Sportif (a series of six races, also in France), and the South American Triathlon Circuit.
Athletes in Australia and New Zealand, with an affec- tion for beach sports and an already established schedule of run/swim lifeguard competitions, embraced triathlon in short order. Even Ironman Hawaii grew beyond its local appeal: By 1985, the event hosted participants from 34 countries and Americans from 46 states.
“Elite athletes crossed the finish line first, but the number of age-group athletes and elites grew,” explains Barnett. Meanwhile, the sport caught the attention of Juan Antonio Samaranch, then president of the International Olympic Committee, while he was in Los Angeles for the 1984 Summer Games.
As the story goes, he caught a glimpse of a televised triathlon and declared the sport should be an Olympic event. It took just 10 years for triathlon to be accepted onto the Olympic program for the 2000 Games, just 26 years since its humble beginnings in 1974.
The televised Olympic triathlon created a buzz that result- ed in a popularity boost not seen since the 1982 Wide World of Sports episode. “Sydney gave us a huge boost,” Barnett says of the 2000 Olympic Games.
That year, World Cup races — triathlons staged by ITU for elite athletes to earn their way to the Olympics — experienced a surge of age-group athletes, further increas- ing triathlon’s numbers. This evolution also encouraged the more adventurous among the sport’s devotees to consider crossing borders to compete.
The Internet helped, too, not only by promoting the sport to interested athletes, but also making the growing world of triathlon more accessible. “Chat lines and forums have made the sport smaller,” says Deepak Patel, owner of the Chicago-based travel business Premium Plus Sports. “Triathletes get firsthand reports about races in exotic places, and this exchange of information makes traveling there less daunting.”
Nick Morales is doing his part to invite other triathletes to follow his globetrotting lead. His Web site, www.trimapper.com, charts every triathlon he can locate as a way to help introduce people to this global phenomenon and to help them plan triathlon vacations.
“I started by putting a couple of triathlons on a map, and I’ve continued to plot them,” he says. So far, he’s plotted more than 1,100 events (see “Where to Go, How to Get There,” page 57). In the process, he’s discovered just how far-reaching triathlon has become.
Nearly two dozen new triathlons are debuting in 2007, Morales notes, including events in Indonesia, Singapore, New Zealand, Argentina, England and Austria. The most exotic triathlon, he says, is in Fiji; the most challenging is the Norseman Xtreme Triathlon in Eidfjord, Norway, because of the punishing terrain and brutal climbs.
Each of these events offers a unique getaway for committed triathletes like Morales. And Patel, who has long specialized in international travel, has been taking notice of the triathlon phenomenon since 1986, when he first began arranging travel for athletes entered in Ironman Hawaii. Over the years, his travel agency has evolved to help a growing number of American athletes travel to international events.
“Triathletes who go overseas are open to new cultures; they like getting to know people and learning how different parts of the world prepare for the same event,” Patel says. “Racing on foreign soil contributes to that adventurous experience,” he adds. “Plus, traveling to a foreign country adds an element of challenge to a sport they know.”
While the United States, with an estimated 85,000 triathletes, sends substantially more competitors abroad than any other country, Europe has a similar passion for the sport. It’s just expressed somewhat differently — and that may catch some traveling U.S. triathletes a little off guard.
“The sport in Europe has basically developed in the opposite way it has in the United States,” explains Barnett. In Europe, as well as in Australia and New Zealand, the emphasis has been on grooming young athletes, while the adults participate more casually; the United States, on the other hand, caters to competitive age-group athletes.
Germany, for instance, is a triathlete-dense country, boasting some 1,300 triathlon clubs. “But while there may be 5,000 athletes at a triathlon in Germany, many of those participants will only do that one race. They’re referred to as ‘hobby athletes.’ You don’t see expensive bikes or the latest tri gear,” says Barnett. The nearly 600 American clubs, on the other hand, cater to the competitive age- grouper, while USA Triathlon grooms elite athletes at Olympic-training centers.
In Africa, the ITU is cultivating both elite and young-amateur participation — and creating another exotic setting for the adventurous triathlete. In 2006, the ITU created the African Triathlon Cup series, which this year will draw athletes to Kenya, South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe and Mauritius.
“We’re putting significant money into Africa,” Barnett says, adding that the organiza- tion is boosting the amount of prize money, as well as taking the triathlon message to youngsters in the schools. “We’re also putting more money in the bonus pool so professional athletes will follow the series,” she explains. “It’s still mainly white athletes, but coaches are going into the communities and schools. It’s such worthwhile work.”
Spreading the multisport gospel isn’t limited to the traditional swim-bike-run events, either. The ITU and national governing bodies such as USA Triathlon also oversee duathlons (run/bike/run), aquathlons (swim/run) and winter triathlons (run/mountain-bike/cross-country ski). “Winter triathlon is quite big in Europe,” says Barnett, ”bigger than duathlon.”
It’s all part of triathlon’s quirky evolution: Its pioneers spread the sport across the globe in search of new triathletes, only to find an increasing number of triathletes traveling the globe in search of new triathlons.
The expansion and cross-population is unlikely to stop anytime in the near future. And, ironically, that’s likely to make the universe of triathlon, over time, feel like a small world, indeed.