After years of growth and change, Triathlon has finally hit a down turn in race registrations and endemic trade. It occurred to me that, since we stopped growing, in a way, we hit adulthood. So it’s time to get real about who we are and what our future might look like. 

by Sara Gross

Triathlon was a beautiful baby. Born in San Diego in 1974 to proud parents Jack Johnstone and Don Shanahan.

As a child Triathlon was creative and playful, trying new things and taking risks. Triathlon would change the order and lengths of its disciples from event to event with ease. Could a person actually do a 3.8 mile swim, 112 mile bike followed by a full marathon? Triathlon was not afraid to find out.

In high school, Triathlon was the cool kid – the jock. With a bohemian vibe and the ability to provide a tough challenge, triathlon had the right image at the right time.

Triathlon was also studious, completed homework on time and got into the Olympic Games while maintaining a sense of playfulness through off-road racing and upholding a badass image through the long distance events. Triathlon had everything.

And then the real world hit. Triathlon’s pubescent growth spurt is over. As Tri moves awkwardly into adulthood we have to ask;

What kind of adult will Triathlon be?

Gone are the days when triathletes are asked by confused relatives if we still do “those marathon things” in relation to a recent event. No longer does the word “Triathlon” evoke unobtainable levels of fitness like it did in our high school days.  The mainstream knows who Triathlon is.

Nostalgic calls for a return to our free-spirited youth can often be heard from the depths of Triathlon’s forums. Or a sentimental cry that we need more innovation, more ‘wild and crazy’ to keep up with CrossFit and Obstacle Course Racing and Color Runs. All to attract more young people, to be the cool kid we used to be.

Triathlon. I’m sorry but, it’s time to grow up.

You have a lot going for you, so let’s get ready for the next phase.

The desire for multisport events runs deep in the collective human consciousness. The ancient Greek Games included Boxing, Equestrian, Running, Wrestling and Pentathlon. It might have been easier to start with single sport events, but no, even back then our Hellenic forerunners felt compelled to create an event that chose a winner from the best all-around athlete.

In the modern era, Triathlon occupies the central position in the multisport space. Kudos Tri.

But in order to keep that position, Triathlon has to pull up its socks and commit to making its standard distances great by providing consistent race experiences that are safe and fair.

Let’s take Triathlon’s older cousin Running as an example. What would Running be without the standard distances of 5k, 10k, half and full marathon? The crazy-fun off shoots of Running are often still run over standard distances, with color runs typically at 5k and Spartan Races often at 13 or 26miles. You can’t have the crazy offspring without strong adult parents who are confident in their everyday, standard events. Road racing is the bread and butter of Running. Running has seen declining numbers too, but Running is already a strong, confident adult, ready to weather lower numbers while staying strong and committed to its core.

And Triathlon, as a grown up you need to be honest and commit to providing safe races courses that allow for marshalling. And stop trying to blame athletes for not following the rules when your rules don’t make any sense. Distances should be accurate and participants should know that they are getting what they paid for.

Here are some suggestions for an easy rite of passage into sporting adulthood:

Get real about who we are. Triathlon is a swim-bike-run race typically run over set distances of Sprint, Olympic, 70.3 and 140.6 miles. Without a strong collection of races over these distances Triathlon’s core turns to mush. Off-road and gravel events must be counter balanced by a plethora of quality on-road events. Let’s not pretend that our standard fare races are cool and hip. They are not. What they are is dependable, predictable and needed.

Act like a grown up. So when millennials, youth and people from any demographic get sick of their Box or Bootcamp or Ballet Barre workouts, Triathlon will be there like the steady, reliable adult we are.

Be A Leader. We are in the Olympics – now with two events. We have multiple World Championships over a variety of distances. We are established. We need to be a leader and act as such. We must continue to  break down barriers for underrepresented groups, minorities, women and the LGBTQ community. Make fair play, equity and accessibility the centre of the conversation.

Behave in a consistent manner. If you say your race covers a 112-miles on the bike, provide a 112-mile bike course. At every race. Everywhere. Be the grown up in the room through proper race marshalling and be damned sure that athletes are safe.

Create heroes. Triathlon needs heroes because heroes inspire people to get off the couch and do their first Sprint race. Let’s do a better job of celebrating our ITU short course athletes. Create pathways for long course pros. Super League, Major League Triathlon and the Collins Cup are doing some good work in this direction. But there’s more work to be done.

Stop giving a crap what other people think of us. Own it Triathlon, because we are awesome. Weather moments of industry decline with our head held high. Growth was bound to level off or even decline as we move into adulthood. Be proud of who we are and stop giving a crap whether young people like us. Confidence is attractive.

Triathlon, you “won” the race for the multisport space in modern history. You have all the makings of a great Sport. So now go out there and make Jack and Don proud.

Psst… Ladies…Did you see Live Feisty’s big announcement last week? Check out Outspoken: Women in Triathlon Summit presented by Triathlete Magazine. Join us at the end of the year to:

  • develop leadership skills
  • connect with other forward-thinking women
  • learn about the history of gender equality in triathlon
  • discover your inner advocate
  • create an actionable vision to better the sport for all women


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