History of Triathlon: 1900s Through 1920s France

As told in the previous post, the first official record of the triathlon was the one that took place in the 1904 Summer Olympics, an international sports competition sanctioned by the International Olympic Committee (IOC). However, the 1904 triathlon was quite unlike the sport that we know today.

Running was involved in the form of a 100 yard dash event, but the disciplines cycling and swimming were noticeably absent. Instead, long jump and shot put were the sporting events included.

Essentially then, we may only credit the emergence of the term triathlon to the 1904 Olympics, and not really the introduction of the three-disciplined sports event involving swimming, cycling and running.


During this year, three-disciplined sports competitions, called les trois sports or the three sports, were being held in France, specifically in the commune of Joinville-le-Pont. The disciplines involved were running, canoeing, and cycling. The sporting events were conducted in no specific order and the distances for each were often short.


The multi-stage competitions became a big hit in France, perhaps because they were regularly staged by sports enthusiasts in Paris, the country’s capital and largest city. A noticeable modification was made though and canoeing was eventually replaced with swimming. Perhaps this was to facilitate the race as more and more commuters around the Paris region joined.

In 1920, L´Auto, a general sports paper in France, covered the multi-stage competition Les Trois Sports. The race consisted of a 3 kilometer run, a 12 kilometer bike, and a swim through the Marne channel, with all three legs completed without stops.

Banks of the Marne River today

During this period, the events were referred to in various names. Sometimes the competitions were called, not just les trois sports, but La Course des Débrouillards (roughly translates to the resourceful man run), or La course des Touche à Tout (roughly translates to the key to all race).


Important highlights to the triathlon sport happened during this year. For one, an event quite like the modern triathlon that we know today, garnered the support of an established French swim club, the Petit Perillon.

On September 4, 1921, the club conducted its very own triathlon consisting of a 7 kilometer bicycle leg, a 5 kilometer run, and a 200 meter swim. Perhaps a remarkable thing about this competition was that it was dominated by a woman, Lulu Helmet.

While the birth of the modern triathlon is said in informal terms to have happened in France, it is strange that the events mentioned are rarely recognized as genuine triathlon competitions. In fact, even the International Triathlon Union (ITU) and USA Triathlon don’t consider them as precursors to the modern triathlon, and instead attributes the birth of the sport to the numerous athletic competitions held by the San Diego Track Club in Mission Bay, San Diego, California in the 1970s.




Modernization Theory and Ironman Triathlon

La merveilleuse Histoire du Triathlon

San Diego, the birthplace of triathlon

History of Triathlon Timeline

Danskin Triathlon Training


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