The United States fielded six-person teams to each of the first three Olympic Games and the Rio Games, and a five-person team to the London 2012 and Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games. In the 2016 Rio Olympic Games, Gwen Jorgensen won the United States' first Olympic gold medal in triathlon.
In the delayed Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games (pushed to 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic), the U.S. followed up on Jorgensen’s success in Rio with medals in the women’s individual event and first-ever Mixed Relay event. 2016 Olympian and 2019 ITU World Champion Katie Zaferes won bronze in the women’s individual event while Zaferes, Kevin McDowell, Taylor Knibb and Morgan Pearson teamed up to earn silver in the Mixed Relay behind Great Britain.
The only other medal for the U.S. was a bronze, earned by Susan Williams when she finished third in Athens in 2004. Hunter Kemper is the only four-time U.S. Olympic triathlete. Kemper was the top U.S. male finisher in 2000, 2004, 2008 and 2012. In 2021, Kevin McDowell supplanted Kemper as the highest-placing man in the Olympic Games with a sixth-place finish in Tokyo. Find out more about the history of the U.S. in Olympic competition below.
The History of the Olympic Games
The first modern Olympic Games were held in 1896 in Athens, Greece.
Baron Pierre de Coubertin is considered to be the father of the modern Olympic Games, and also founded the International Olympic Committee.
Olympic Motto: Citius, Altius, Fortius (faster, higher stronger)
Olympic Creed: “The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not winning but taking part; the essential thing in life is not conquering but fighting well.” (coined by Pierre de Coubertin)
Olympic Rings: The rings are interlocking and have five colors — blue, yellow, black, green and red. They are meant to represent the five inhabited continents.
Olympic Flag: The flag has a white background and the Olympic rings. The six colors on the flag represent colors that appear on all of the national flags.
Olympic Flame: The Olympic flame has been part of the games since the ancient Olympics and is associated with positive values. The Olympic flame can only be lit by the sun’s rays and is lit months before the opening of the Games for the torch relay that carries the flame to the host city for the opening ceremony.
Did You Know?
- The first modern Olympic Games only featured 241 athletes from 14 countries. The 2012 Olympic Games in London welcomed 10,568 athletes representing 204 National Organizing Committees.
- There were only 43 events contested in 1896. In London, 302 medal events were held. Events featured 26 sports (and 39 disciplines) and were held in 34 venues. Through the course of the Games, athletes set 38 world records and 99 Olympic records.
- The Olympic Winter Games were not held until 1924. Prior to that, figure skating and ice hockey were held as part of the Olympic Games that had been traditionally held in the summer.
- Summer and Winter Olympics used to be held in the same year. This changed in 1994.
- From 1912 to 1948, art competitions were held as part of the Olympic Games. There were five categories for sport-related works — architecture, literature, music, painting and sculpture. Though these events are no longer contested, each Olympic Games has a cultural component.
What’s an Olympiad?
An Olympiad refers to a period of four years. This term was used during the ancient Olympic Games to refer to a specific competition. Back then, an Olympiad started with the Games.
In the modern Olympic Games, an Olympiad is a period of four consecutive years based on the calendar. 2016 is the start of a new Olympiad, so you will often hear the Rio de Janiero Olympic Games referred to as “the Games of the 31st Olympiad.”
September 1974 – While advertising its new race, the San Diego Track Club newsletter headline read, “Run, Cycle, Swim – Triathlon set for 25th,” using the word “triathlon” for the first time in the modern sense.
Sept. 4, 1994 – At the 103rd IOC Session in Paris, triathlon was officially included on the Olympic Program starting with the Sydney Olympic Games of 2000. Triathlon was placed on the program on a provisional basis, meaning the sport would be re-evaluated after the Sydney Olympic Games to determine if it would remain on the program.
May 27-28, 2000 – The first U.S. Olympic Triathlon Team Trials took place in Dallas, Texas, selecting the team that competed at the Sydney Olympics.
Sept. 16-17, 2000 – Triathlon makes its long awaited Olympic Games debut as the women’s triathlon opens day one of competition at the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games. Switzerland’s Brigitte McMahon shocks the field and is crowned the first gold medallist. Joanna Zeiger of the U.S. places fourth, while Sheila Taormina finishes sixth in the women’s event. In the first men’s triathlon of the Olympic Games, Canadian Simon Whitfield came from behind with the fastest run split to claim gold.
Aug. 25-26, 2004 – Triathlon makes its second appearance at the Olympic Games in Athens. Austria’s Kate Allen comes from behind on the run and pulls off a stunning upset to claim Olympic gold. The United States’ Susan Williams wins the bronze for the first Olympic medal for an American. Hamish Carter of New Zealand won the men’s gold medal.
Aug. 18-19, 2008 – Triathlon makes its third appearance at the Olympic Games in Beijing. Australia’s Emma Snowsill and Germany’s Jan Frodeno are victorious, becoming new Olympic gold medallists. Laura Bennett of the U.S. places fourth, narrowly missing the podium.
Aug. 4 & 7, 2012 – The women's triathlon event makes a splash with a remarkable sprint to the gold, ending in a photo finish. Switzerland's Nicola Spirig finished just ahead of Lisa Norden to become the women's Olympic champion. American Sarah Groff (now Sarah True) finished fourth. In the men's race, Alistair Brownlee won gold in his home country.
Aug. 18 & 20, 2016 - The U.S. makes history with Gwen Jorgensen winning gold at the Rio Olympic Games. Alistair and Jonathan Brownlee repeat as Olympic medalists, with Alistair winning another gold.
July 26-27 & 31, 2021* - Katie Zaferes wins bronze behind Bermuda’s Flora Duffy and Great Britain’s Georgia Taylor-Brown for the United States’ third individual women’s Olympic Games medal. Norway’s Kristian Blummenfelt wins gold in the men’s individual race with cancer survivor Kevin McDowell posting the highest-ever U.S. men’s finish in sixth. In the debut of the Mixed Relay, the American team of Katie Zaferes, Kevin McDowell, Taylor Knibb and Morgan Pearson won silver behind Great Britain.
* The Tokyo Games were delayed one year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Watch the Women's Triathlon at the London 2012 Olympic Games (YouTube via the Olympic Channel)
Watch the Men's Triathlon at the London 2012 Olympic Games (YouTube via the Olympic Channel)
Gwen Jorgensen (Milwaukee, Wis.), Katie Zaferes (Hampstead, Md.), Sarah True (Hanover, N.H.), Joe Maloy (Wildwood Crest, N.J.), Ben Kanute (Geneva, Ill.), Greg Billington (Spokane, Wash.)