The evolution of triathlon as a distinct event is difficult to trace with precision. Many consider events in early twentieth century France to be the beginnings of triathlon. The earliest record for an event was from 1901 in Joinville-le-Pont, Val-de-Marne it called itself "Les trois sports" (The three sports) and consisted of a run, bicycle and canoe segment. By 1921 this event had become more like a standard triathlon with the canoe element being replaced with a swim. Throughout the 1920s other bike, run, and swim events had appeared in different cities. These multisport events would continue to slowly spread and grow in popularity. Throughout this growth with new events appearing no unified rules ever existed and as a whole would remain a minority event on the world stage.
The first modern swim/bike/run event was held at Mission Bay, San Diego, California in 1974, as an alternative workout to the rigours of track training. The race was conceived and directed by two members of the San Diego Track Club, Jack Johnstone and Don Shanahan, named the event the Mission Bay Triathlon. It is worthy of note that neither founder had heard of the French events, both believing their race a unique idea. By 1980 triathlon had made its way across the Atlantic to northern Europe with the first European triathlon held in 1980 in Pilsen, Czechoslovakia. The Netherlands, Belgium and West Germany follow after, all hosting an event in 1981, but the media coverage of these events is almost non-existent.
The year 1985 saw the creation of the first international triathlon structure, the European Triathlon Union (ETU). The first attempt to create a global triathlon entity was the Triathlon Federation International (TFI), but immediately fights of influences broke out between the European and Anglo-American federations over many issues, this caused immediate fracturing and the TFI never fully established itself. Around the same time, Canadian Les McDonald held talks with Juan Antonio Samaranch, then President of the IOC. Samaranch had already declared his intention to add triathlon to the Olympic Games as fast as possible, but only under the auspices of the International Union of Modern Pentathlon and Biathlon (UIPMB).
Many within the triathlon community were unhappy with the arrangement wishing for their own federation not to be held as part of UIPMB. Then in 1989, the International Triathlon Union (ITU) was founded in Avignon, France, with the chief goal of putting triathlon on the Olympic program. McDonald was elected President. The city of Avignon is also given the honour of hosting the first World Championship. The official distance for the triathlon was set at a 1500 m swim, a 40 km cycle, and a 10 km run. In 1991, the IOC recognized the ITU as the sole governing body for the sport of triathlon, then in 1994, triathlon was added to the Olympic program as a medal earning sport at the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney. No other sport achieved Olympic status in such a short time.