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American expansion, Russian threat and active democracy: An institutional perspective on triathlon history

TERRA ECONOMICUS, , Vol. 19 (no. 3),

The factual diarchy in triathlon, as well as the emphasis of its economic model on mass participation – all this is atypical for Olympic sports. On top of non-profit International Triathlon Union (ITU), there is also a strong economic competitor – commercial World Triathlon Corporation (WTC) owning the Ironman brand with its own independent World Championships. The reasons for this state are poorly investigated. Analysis of archival documents, memoirs, press publications, as well as interviews with the founders have allowed us to reconstruct the main stages of the socio-economic history of triathlon. The focus is on how the sports governing bodies were created in the 1980s. We also describe the social origins of the first Iron Man race and the birth of triathlon, the rivalry between Hawaii and Nice championships, and the ITU conflicts with WTC in 1990s–2000s. We argue that these conflicts are the continuation of tensions between European representatives and “American alliance” back in 1980s during the creation of the governing body. Their underlying reason is the difference in European and American models of sports. We dispute the opinion about “Russian threat”, which caused the collapse of the Union Internationale de Pentathlon Moderne, Biathlon et Triathlon (UIPMBT), plus views on the ITU development as a success story. We show that the causes of UIPMBT collapse and the earlier Triathlon Federation International collapse were due to the personal ambitions of ITU first president Les McDonald, its questionable political technique (so-called “active democracy”) and the “Alliance’s” economic interests. But in the end, McDonald’s backstage victories became Pyrrhic for ITU.
Citation: Adelfinsky A.S. (2021). American expansion, Russian threat and active democracy: An institutional perspective on triathlon history. Terra Economicus 19(3): 105–120. DOI: 10.18522/2073-6606-2021-19-3-105-120

Keywords: triathlon; Ironman; economic history; case study; sport governance; mass participation sport; commercialization of sport; European Sport Model

JEL codes: N40, Z13, Z29

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Publisher: Southern Federal University
Founder: Southern Federal University
ISSN: 2073-6606