Why Men Go On TV in Spandex: The Real Reason Behind Triathlon

The history of sport is the history of civilization; an appropriate and highly focused lens through which to observe, dissect, detail and discern the ways in which humans interact as social beings. For me, anyway, there are few things more engaging, more revealing than the sociology of sport. It has helped me to understand why I’ve done, and will forever do, completely ridiculous things.
The battles in sport have both given rise to war and created peace; men and women killing and healing equally because of a game. At times it appears silly, these small groups and individuals rolling balls, swinging clubs, running around in circles with nowhere to go. Collectively, athletes and organizers of sport have created and then attached reason and motive to the formerly inane: racing a bicycle across North America, a dog-pulled sled across frozen tundra, lifting refrigerators overhead and flipping motorcycles (with bodies attached), it is no wonder that the defining lines of sport are as blurred as base-path chalk.

And every time our society seems to grasp the idea or at least invest their own interpretation into the “great whys” of these seemingly endless march of “made-for-profit” or “made-for-madness” spectacles of athletic endeavor, a new kid comes along and flies his body and his chosen (insert equipment here) further through the air. But even if the cultist in search of personal physical expression shuns the spotlight and correlative cash, if a TV-type guy can get it funded, put it on the box and attach a generation to it, then a new sport is formed.

It’s a terribly strange paradigm, this 21st century, media-driven mode of sport development. Especially when set up against the steadfast traditions and dogma of our Big Four (basketball, baseball, football and hockey). The irony is rampant, the narrative as slippery as a watermelon seed. Street skaters and snowboarders using personal coaches, scientific diets and oxygen tents while 2nd string left-fielders from the Triple A League are found with needles in their lockers—what’s a hypnotized sports fan-atic to do?.

But that’s part of the beauty of sport as a reflection of society—it’s not that hard to take a page from a play book and apply it to the political economy or some long range demographic forecasting. Sport reflects the world which shines back a kind of truth, if you can speak the language and read the signs. Not always pleasant, sport gives us one of the last great opportunities to view the human condition.

Along comes triathlon, which predates the term “multi-sport,” which creates cross-training, which is basically a marketing descriptive invented to help buyers understand, identify and then purchase a new category of shoes. It’s called box office, baby, and a shinning example of capitalism riding shotgun on the shoulders of a few folks down near San Diego who decided that you could actually combine three endurance sports and not have to call 911 after the second one.

That was over thirty years ago on a piece of boggy mud dredged and reclaimed from Mission Bay (originally called, False Bay), piled and packed into an interesting shape, ribboned with cheap asphalt and given a festive, Spanish-sounding name. But the beauty of triathlon’s origin on Fiesta Island (more of a causeway, actually) in the mid-70’s lies in the rebellious hearts of the handful of San Diego Track Club members who, in Timothy Learyesque fashion, created the dare and then took it. For the record and other than one book on the subject (shameless hint) there isn’t much in the way of official documentation. But Dave Pain, Jack Johnstone and Don Shanahan, the collective “founders” of triathlon (with all apologies to those who are dangerously close to that responsibility), are little known outside a narrowing concentric circle of aficionados.

The beauty and unveiling dichotomy is that they don’t really care. Or maybe they do, just a little. Eliot once said that “If you haven’t the strength to impose your own terms upon life, you must accept the terms it offers you.” Triathlon, and maybe a whole host of other formerly strange, they’ll-never-buy-it sport are in existence because a few people, and then a few more decided that while running around in thin, nylon shorts, the wind blowing your hair and all that cliché-ridden rationale is rather nice, they had ideas about new terms—their own terms. This, and no other single reason, is why the sport of triathlon exists.