Where In The World Is Triathlon Most Popular? Is The Sport Dying!

If you are really into triathlon, then you must have thought about where in the world is the best place to be with like-minded people. Well here is what we know.

According to Statista (Source), in 2017 there were 4.04 Million Triathlon participants in the United States. When compared to the population of 325 Million at the time, that is one in every eighty Americans is a triathlete (1/80).

However, when looking at the number in Britain, according to the British triathlon, there were 220 Thousand participants in 2019, that is One in Every Three Hundred British is triathlete (1/300).

There is not enough data to go around this topic, but it is clear that the gap between USA and other countries is wide in terms of the number of people participating in a triathlon every year in relation to the country’s population.

Considering the above, it could be concluded that Triathlon is most popular in the United States

Also check out When Does Triathlon Season Start And End at Every Part of The World?

In the 1920s where the declaration of the โ€œLes Trois Sportsโ€ in France event was first issued in the newspaper. The event consisted of a 3km run, a 12-km bike, and a swim across the Marne Channel. For years, the three sports were held in this order without a break. (Source)

In short, France is the Birth Place of triathlon.

However, It is widely recognized that the birth of the triathlon occurred in 1974 in San Diego, California. Prior to this, there were a number of swim-run biathlons, meant for lifeguard competitions; and, where individuals, later on, have created their own unique triathlons involving swimming, biking, and running in a single day. (Source)

Is Triathlon Dying?

Answering this question depends on how you hear it. If the question is, ” is triathlon going to fade away”, then the answer is no. Triathlon has been around for more than 50 years now and has solid roots that will remain for decades to come.

What Percentage of the world’s population has completed a triathlon?

According to  SFIA, triathlon participation peaked at 2.5 million (people who participated in at least one triathlon) in 2015. Compared to the 7 billion people populating the planet, there is around one active triathlete in every 2,800 People in a given year.

While I doubt the numbers from SFIA as it’s conflicting with Statista’s number which indicates that the USA alone had 4.04 million triathletes in 2015, we could make the assumption that there is on average one active triathlete for every 1,750 to 2,800 people populating the planet.

However, there are concerns about the declining rate of triathletes. Triathlon Could be losing popularity. The New York Times reported that membership in USA triathlon dropped from 175 thousand in 2013 to 130 thousand in 2019. Also, another disturbing fact that supports the argument is the aging triathlete population.

Can you believe that the largest age group of triathletes is between 45 and 49 (Source).

It is common to find that the top three finishers are over the age of 35 (Source)

How many people complete an IronMan triathlons every year ?

There were 41 thousand Ironman Finishers in 2010 (source). Nowadays, there are around 90 thousand athletes register in full Ironman distance every year ( Source) .

If we say that the percentage of successful finishing rate is around 90%, then we can assume that there are between 41 and 81 thousand Ironman finishers every year. That is one in every 87 Thousand people (1/87,000) alive on the plant complete an Ironman every year.

To put the above into context, for a county of one million people, there is might be around 12 Triathletes living there who finished an Ironman triathlon.

Triathlon Entry Barriers

The reason behind the decline in the sport’s popularity has to do with the friction offered by the entry barriers of the sport. Here are the main barriers to get into the sport of swim, bike, and run.

Cost of racing triathlon

Triathlon is an expensive sport. Most people cannot afford to be triathletes. This is apparent when we look at the average income of a triathlete in 2016 which was $100,000 a year against the median of $60,000 in the united states.

I myself had to spend dozens of thousands of dollars to get to the ironman triathlon finish line. I also have to say that the lack of proper guidance caused me to significantly overspend.

To help people navigate their way through this financial barrier, I wrote the following article which categorizes athletes and provides a prediction of how much one is expected to spend on the sport and what are those expenses; The Actual Cost Of Racing Triathlons; First Timer, Beginner, Enthusiast, And Advanced.

Also, the races refund policy is not the best in the world. For example, check out IRONMAN Business Bureaucracy: Examples Of How They Can Screw You Up & What Can You Do About It!

Limited Logistics

Race organizers are unable to allow for a big number of participants due to the restrictive logistics of the three sports. Compare the Ironman event of two thousand participants against a running event which typically holds more than ten thousand.

The swim scares them away

If the athlete is not from a swimming background, the idea of an open water swim is the core source of their anxiety. It even scares the hell out of those who are already deep into the sport.

It takes tons of hours practicing and potentially waking up very early in the morning for that freezing cold swim session.

It’s not only the inconvenience but also the risk associated. The swim is the deadliest discipline in triathlon (source)

It’s a “one time off thing” Mentality

Many athletes just want to get over with it. They do the training, finish a race, and live to tell the story. Their main intention with the sport is to prove that they can take on such a difficult challenge, and once they do, they move on.

Also, due to the logistic and financial friction of the sport, many decide to move to an easier-to-access endurance sport. I am guilty of this myself. I went from an ironman triathlete to running ultras for this exact reason.

Risk of overuse injuries

In such a sport where one is expected to spend hours swimming, biking, and running repetitively, it is quite easy to slip into overuse injuries. Such injuries could keep the triathlete for some good weeks away from the sport.

Long Training Hours

On average, an age group triathlete is expected to spend between 8 to 14 hours a week training. Triathlon training is more demanding than other sports because one has to practice all three sports and somehow put them all together.

So, a triathlete will have to swim, bike, and run at least once a week, which means it’s time that you could be spending with the family, or chilling out with friends.

The Pandemic

To add to the declining popularity, covid 19 came along and smashed the numbers. With lockdowns all around the world, triathlon organizers suffered a big blow and were forced to cancel all their events in 2020 and part of 2021. It is likely that some of the organizers did not make it financially to the next season.

While people were still able to participate in virtual events, which are by no means anywhere close to the real thing, fewer people showed interest in the sport.

This could be observed when looking at google trends for that period,

Google Trend for the Term- Triathlon

It’s a Tough sport for kids

Unlike any other sport, attracting kids to triathlon is an uphill battle. It’s not only that their parents have to do the spending, but they also have to do the coaching of 3 separate sports, and then somehow smush them together into one. I mean think about it, it is difficult enough to have a kid interested and practice one sport.

Also, kids have to be interested in the sports and willing to spend some hours a week practicing all three sports. Unlike running where all kids learn and practice naturally at any age, triathlon has a minimum undisclosed participation age. Check the article we wrote about What is the minimum age to race Triathlons? Distances, Risks, and Tips for parents

Comparing triathlon popularity with cycling

According to Statista (Source) one in every ten Americans cycled on regular basis, which makes cycling eight times more popular than triathlon.

Toughest Triathlon in the world

This is a topic of debate and it’s really hard to define one triathlon as being the toughest triathlon in the world. From personal experience, I have competed in Celtman extreme triathlon in 2018 and I think it is the toughest triathlon in the world.

But the truth is, it’s a matter of perspective because I am comparing Celtman with another ironman I have done, and it’s not something you can quantify.

Some say Norseman is the toughest triathlon there is, but again, I met a guy who raced with me Celtman and also did Norseman before. He was very clear that the cold water in Celtman made it a much more brutal challenge. So really, you have to decide which one you think is more hardcore and give it the title yourself.

Anyway, I think it’s worth it to watch the video below. It is good marketing material for Norseman, but the same aspects apply to all extreme triathlons.

Noresman Triathlon 10th anniversary marketing video


An extreme triathlete who have competed in dozens of triathlons including IronMans and Extreme triathlons.

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