By Dave Curnow
In the mid 1980's Carl Thomas and a few others in the Triathlon Federation USA (TriFed/USA) determined it was vital to have triathlon recognized as a legitimate sport, and not just something for “weekend warriors” to spend time on. This required recognition by the United States Olympic (USOC) Committee. Aside from just the prestige of USOC recognition, it was important for three reasons. First, USOC recognition would bring with it certain funding which would help the sport grow. Second, USOC recognition would be the first step in TriFed/USA’s long-term quest to have triathlon included in the Olympic program. Third, it would be a critical step in having international recognition and competition for triathlons.
Achieving USOC recognition required a three step process.
First, TriFed/USA had to be brought in line with USOC criteria. Initially, that involved formally making TriFed/USA a nonprofit organization qualified under IRS Code 503(c)(3) federal tax-exempt status. At the time making TriFed/USA a nonprofit company was not a problem considering its meager financial resources. Nevertheless, Dave Curnow, a TriFed/USA Board member, prepared and submitted the formal 503(c)(3) application to the Internal Revenue Service. It was successful, and in 1986 TriFed/USA was officially tax-exempt. Next, the Bylaws of TriFed/USA had to be amended to conform to the USOC requirements. Curnow prepared the amendments which were duly approved in 1986, and the new Bylaws were filed with the relevant California governmental entities since TriFed/USA was then based in Davis, California.
Second, formal application had to be made to the USOC. To that end, Curnow prepared the application, and submitted it with supporting materials to the USOC.
Third, live appearances before the USOC Membership Committee were required. Curnow made two appearances, one in Chicago, Illinois and one in Dallas, Texas. The meetings with the Committee consisted of several national federations individually appearing to make their pitch as to why their sport should receive USOC recognition. No national federation was allowed to review the others’ submissions or hear their presentation.
Curnow's first appearance went well, but it was more of a learning experience since neither he, nor anyone else at TriFed/USA, had ever done anything like it before. The Committee members were somewhat skeptical since in early 1987, triathlon was barely 12 years old, the first one having been staged in Mission Bay, San Diego, California on September 25, 1974 with Ironman starting in 1978. One of the Committee members was the delegate from USA Swimming. Because one of triathlon’s legs involves swimming, although he did not say so, it was apparent he was concerned what impact triathlon’s recognition would have on his sport. Fortunately, there was no one on the Committee from the cycling and track and field federations. In addition the Committee asked for data verifying the number of countries that had sanctioned triathlons by national organizations. This was not an easy number to verify.
Not to be deterred, Curnow made his second appearance with more detailed information, and convinced the Committee’s members that triathlon was not just a passing fancy, was here to stay, and would not impact other federations’ programs. It appeared triathlons were on the way to being an official member of USOC.
In November 1987, TriFed/USA sent Curnow to a planning meeting in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. The purpose of the meeting was to begin the steps toward forming an international triathlon governing body. One of the attendees was Les McDonald who eventually spearheaded the formation of the International Triathlon Union (ITU), and who also recognized the need to have triathlon achieve membership in the Olympic program.
During the USOC recognition process in the 1980’s, Curnow and Verne Scott joked that Olympic program inclusion would probably take until the year 2000, and so it did.
Unfortunately, Curnow had a serious bike accident in March 1988, which took him out of the game for a while.
Others in TriFed/USA, and later USAT, took-up the cause, and triathlon finally obtained USOC recognition and membership. That helped lead the way to ITU and later IOC recognition, and, eventually inclusion in the 1960 Olympic program.
Dave Curnow is the Assistant U.S. Attorney, Southern District of California, San Diego, Calif.; former member, Board of Directors, TriFed/USA; 1983-88, TriFed/USA Vice President; honorary member International Triathlon Union and member, USAT and ITU Paratriathlon Committees