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Duathlon, Biathlon: What's in a Name?

Talking Tri-/Duathlon for Ordinary Mortals®: A Series

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Last February, as I’m sure many of us were, I spent my time watching the Winter Olympics.  One of the events I came across was the women’s biathlon. I recalled watching a men’s biathlon years ago, but this was a rather different event. In the latter, competitors skied a cross-country course carrying a rifle on their backs. At points they would stop at a target, take shots, accumulate scores, and then proceed on the course. Winners were determined by a combination of skiing speed and shooting accuracy.

In the women’s biathlon at the Sochi Games, the routine was different. Competitors would ski the cross-country course, but several times they would come into a large stadium in which a series of shooting sites, corresponding to the number of racers, were set up. Doing what amounted to a transition, each had to take their target rifles off their backs, lie down with their skis on, line up their targets and then shoot until they made the required number of hits within the target zone. That total time was then added to their skiing time. With highly advanced electronics, viewers could watch the results of the shooting for each competitor. They would then proceed for another lap of skiing. A complex, fascinating event that made me think back to the origins of our run-bike-run duathlon, and how it got its name when in the beginning it too was called the biathlon.

The two-sport variant of triathlon first appeared in the mid-1980s, under a variety of names: "byathlon," "run-bike-run," "cyruthon" (cycle-run), and the name that stuck: "biathlon." At that time, no one was thinking about the Winter Olympics and what the future might hold having the same name for both. In the early days the most common format was run-bike, followed by run-bike-run and then bike-run.  It quickly evolved, however, to an exclusive focus of run-bike-run.

One of its principal early developers (if not the original inventor of the format) was my good friend, Daniel Honig, president of the New York Triathlon Club (NYTC, nee the Big Apple Triathlon Club, BATC). At first, being in the New York metropolitan area where even after the snow had long gone in the spring and was a ways off in the fall, water temperatures were still too cold for comfort, Dan saw the format simply as a way to extend the multi-sport racing season into both the spring and the fall. However, it quickly came to be seen on its own merits as an entry-way into multisport racing for weak or non-swimmers, and then as multisport form that stood on its own, especially for fast bikers and/or runners who just didn’t want to swim.

Dan had originally organized the BATC back in 1983, running triathlons for a four-month summer season. By 1984, he had added the newly minted biathlon to his regular race schedule.  It happens that he did his first biathlon in the spring of 1984, likely one of the first, if not the first, biathlons in the U.S. The sport has had its ups and downs in popularity since that time, but since USA Triathlon has put more emphasis on the sport since 2010, it has been increasing in frequency and popularity.

So why the name change? Simple. In the mid-90s the International Triathlon Union (ITU) applied to the International Olympic Committee (IOC) for the admission of triathlon to the Olympics. There was great receptiveness to the idea on behalf of the IOC. However, there was biathlon already in the Winter Olympics Games and the biathlon federation was not interested in having a sport in the Summer Olympics that had any relationship to a sport different from theirs, but with the same name. The solution was simple and the prefix was changed for our variant from the Greek “bi” to the Latin “du” and so ours became “duathlon” and has remained so ever since.

This series of thoughts and recommendations for beginner and recreational triathletes and duathletes by Dr. Steve Jonas is drawn in part from his book, 101 Ideas and Insights for Triathletes and Duathletes (Monterey, CA: Healthy Learning/Coaches Choice, 2011), text used with permission. The book can be purchased here and is available at Amazon.com and Barnesandnoble.com.

Steve’s most recent multisport book is Duathlon Training and Racing for Ordinary Mortals®: Getting Started and Staying with It (Guilford, CT: Globe Pequot Press/FalconGuides, 2012), available at Amazon.com and BarnesandNoble.com.  The text above is drawn in part from Chap. 1 of that book.

His original book, Triathloning for Ordinary Mortals®, 2nd Ed. (New York: WW Norton, 2006) also can be found at Amazon and Barnes and Noble.

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