How the International Triathlon Union Works

By: Marie Willsey
Runners in aquathlon
Athletes tackle the running portion of the 2010 Budapest ITU Aquathlon World Championships.
Janos Schmidt/

Are you a competitive athlete who pours everything you have into combining swimming, cycling and running? Some of the most hard-core athletes on Earth find top-notch competition through the International Triathlon Union (ITU), the world governing body for the Olympic sport of triathlon and all related multi-sports. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the Association of Summer Olympic International Federations (ASOIF) officially recognize the organization.

The ITU supports the growth of triathlons around the world by working with national and continental federations to develop the sport, from grass roots to the elite performance level. Training, education, event management assistance and organizing world-class events are just a few of the ways in which the ITU helps promote the sport.


A triathlon combines swimming, cycling and running into one event, performed continuously with no breaks. A standard race consists of a 1,500-meter (.93-mile) swim, a 40-kilometer (24.8-mile) bike ride and a 10-kilometer (6.2-mile) run. Triathlons are held around the world, from Alaska to Angola. While terrain and climate may vary, most triathlons follow the same format:

Swim.Triathlons begin with a swim in open water (lakes, rivers, oceans, etc.) or a pool. Swimmers often begin in small groups for added safety, and they may wear wetsuits if the water temperature is too cold.

Transition (T-1). After the swim, athletes transition to their bikes. Each athlete's equipment is placed within a rectangular area that is specially designed so that all participants travel the same distance.

Cycle. The bicycle route is usually mapped out using public roads that are closed to traffic or large parks.

Transition (T-2). Athletes rack their bikes and change from cycling shoes to running shoes.

Run. A 10-kilometer (6.2-mile) run completes the race.

The ITU is also the world governing body for these multi-sports:

Duathlon. This combines running and cycling, usually with a 10-kilometer (6.2-mile) run, 40-kilometer (24.8-mile) cycle and then a 5-kilometer (3.1-mile) run.

Aquathon. A triathlon without cycling, the run-swim-run event may take only 30 minutes to complete at the elite level.

Winter triathlon. Athletes run over snowy, mountainous terrain before switching to mountain biking, then cross-country skiing. Courses are designed so that winners finish in about 80 or 90 minutes.

Team triathlon. National teams of four athletes each complete a triathlon before passing the baton to their teammate. There are both same-sex and coed events.

Paratriathlon. Disabled athletes participate in fair and competitive races among different categories of disability.

Long-distance triathlon. The ultimate test of endurance, long distance triathlons cover more than two or three times the Olympic triathlon distance.

For more information about the history of the ITU, read on.


History of the ITU

Swimmers in triathlon
Swimmers dive into the water during the 2010 Dextro Energy Triathlon - ITU Triathlon World Championship Grand Final in Budapest.

As you might expect, the history of the International Triathlon Union is rooted in the history of the triathlon itself. The first triathlon took place in San Diego, Calif., on September 24, 1975, and was organized by the San Diego Track & Field Club. The race included a 5.3-mile (9-kilometer) run, a 5-mile (8-kilometer) cycle and a 600-yard (.5-kilometer) swim in Mission Bay. Forty-six athletes finished the race.

Enthusiasm quickly spread for the event that combined three races into one. In only a few years, the sport of triathlon became one of the fastest growing sports in the world. Its rapid growth drew the attention of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in 1988. Then IOC president Juan Antonio Samaranch arranged a meeting in Stockholm to discuss adding triathlon to the Olympic Games. Canadian Les McDonald was selected to be president of a working committee for triathlon, and Sweden's Sture Jonasson was elected as secretary.


The International Triathlon Union was founded on April 1, 1989, at the first ITU Congress in Avignon, France. Thirty National Federations attended the first Congress, and the sport's first World Championships were held in Avignon in August 1989. Here, Olympic distances were set at a 1.5-kilometer (.93-mile) swim, 40-kilometer (24.8-mile) bike ride and 10-kilometer (6.2-mile) run. More than 800 athletes representing 40 countries competed in the first World Championships. McDonald was elected as ITU's first official president in 1989.

The ITU's international headquarters were established in Vancouver, Canada. The organization now includes more than 120 affiliated National Federations. Their World Cup series began in 1991, staging 11 races in eight countries. In 2009, the group established the Dextro Energy Triathlon ITU World Championships Series as ITU's top-tier race series. The series includes eight races in eight different countries.

The IOC finally added triathlon to the Olympic program at its Congress in Paris in 1994. The event made its debut at the 2000 Games in Sydney, where Switzerland's Bridgitte McMahon and Canada's Simon Whitefield earned the sport's first gold medals.

In November 2005, Spain's Marisol Casado was elected as the ITU's second president, and she became a member of the IOC in February 2010, at the IOC's annual meeting in the ITU's hometown of Vancouver.

To learn more about the variety of events the ITU offers, click to the next page.


ITU Events

Cylists in triathlon
Triathletes compete in the cycling portion of the 2010 Lausanne ITU Elite Sprint Triathlon World Championships.
Janos Schmidt/

The ITU sponsors, organizes and runs several world championship events each year. The events offer prize purses that together equal more than $3 million. Here are some of the competitions:

ITU World Championship Series. This new series offers an opportunity for the world's top athletes to compete on an ongoing basis while attracting more than 13,000 athletes and 1 million spectators. The annual seven-event series features competitions around the world. Events in 2010 were held in Sydney, Seoul, Madrid, Hamburg, London and Kitzbuhel, concluding with the grand final in Budapest.


Dextro Energy, a leader in the dextrose market, is the sponsor for the series, known as the Dextro Energy Triathlon ITU World Championship Series. Each individual final offers a $150,000 prize purse, and the Grand Final offers a $250,000 purse. Top performers earn points toward their world rankings.

The ITU World Cup Series. Started in 1991, the World Cup Series draws some of the sport's top athletes to compete in Olympic-distance events. Top performers earn points toward a world ranking.

ITU Elite Sprint World Championships. Held for the first time in 2010, this championship features a continuous swim-cycle-run competition that spans half the Olympic distance, including a 750-meter (.46-mile) swim, 20-kilometer (12.4-mile) bicycle and 5-kilometer (3.1-mile) run.

ITU Team Triathlon World Championships. Each country may enter two teams of four athletes (two men and two women). Teams compete in the order of female-male-female-male. Each athlete completes a 275-meter (300-yard) swim, 6-kilometer (3.7-mile) bike ride and 1.5-kilometer (1-mile) run, then tags the next athlete in the relay. The first team triathlon was held in 2009 in Des Moines, Iowa; the 2010 event took place in Lausanne, Switzerland.

ITU Hy-Vee Triathlon Elite Cup. This event attracts top performers from around the world with a purse of $1 million. Held in Des Moines, Iowa, the triathlon is sponsored by Hy-Vee in an effort to promote good health and nutrition.

Long Distance Triathlon World Championships. Held since 1994, this championship includes a swim-bike-run that covers double or triple the standard distances. Stamina and endurance are required, as races for elite triathletes can last around seven hours. Events for the duathlon, aquathlon, winter triathlon and paratriathlon world championships also take place annually.

Olympic Games. Held every four years, the Olympic Games are the much-anticipated, premiere triathlon event. Triathlon made its first Olympic appearance in the 2000 Games in Sydney.

Are you ready for the world of competitive triathlons? For links to more information, click to the next page.


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More Great Links

  • 2010 Dextro Energy Triathlon ITU World Championship Series Media Guide. (Sept. 16, 2010)
  • 2010 ITU Media Guide. (Sept. 21, 2010)