Les McDonald, Olympic Triathlon's Architect, Has Died

The charming, irascible, earth-moving force of nature that was Les McDonald died yesterday according to a statement from the International Triathlon Union (ITU), the association he formed. He was 84 years old. McDonald was a British expatriot to Canada, settling with his wife in Vancouver in 1954 according to the ITU’s statement announcing his death.

Triathlon lore recounts McDonald’s Road to Damascus experience, when in 1988 he received a phone call from then-IOC president Juan Antonio Samaranch asking him to help bring triathlon onto the Olympic program. It’s doubtful an Olympic triathlon was Samaranch’s idea; McDonald was the engine and the fuel empowering triathlon’s Olympic project. Most of those around to spectate the process will agree: Les McDonald is three-quarters of the reason triathlon is an Olympic sport. Everyone and everything else combined, including the IOC, make up the other fourth.

In retrospect McDonald was remarkably clear-headed in what he needed to do to reach his goal. He was instrumental in forming the ITU, triathlon’s world governing body (he had already formed Triathlon Canada in 1983), and was its president until the 20th year after receiving the Samaranch phone call. McDonald lost no time, bringing about the ITU's first world championship in Avignon, France in 1989. Karen Smyers, World Champion at both Olympic-style and Ironman racing, recalled to Slowtwitch that the turning point, "was really the formation of the governing bodies, and the ITU, and I remember being in a room at the very first World Championship in 1989 at France and afterwards and sort of high fiving. Like, wow! We were all in a room with all the people who were instrumental in getting it off the ground: Les McDonald, Mark Sisson.”

McDonald was feverish in his pace of setting up national governing bodies (NGBs), another requirement of the IOC in order for triathlon to make it onto the program. He vigorously defended the ITU’s championship naming rights, taking the Ironman Corporation to the Court of Arbitration for Sport – 1998 and again in 2004 – to keep Ironman from calling its full and half-distance races “world championships”. McDonald could also be spiteful. The ITU lost both those CAS hearings to Ironman and in 2004 McDonald gathered enough NGB votes to toss Ironman (along with Life Time and other McDonald foes) out from under the ITU federation umbrella. These organizations nevertheless remained sanctioning their races with the ITU’s daughter NGBs and the ITU quietly lifted the ban in 2006.

McDonald was likewise difficult on his own lieutenants, which in the early days included Americans Mark Sisson and Scott Zagarino, and the head of the Mexican triathlon federation in the early 1990s Miguel Casillas. All split with McDonald on less-than-amicable terms.

Who's to say anything but his hard-charging, forward-leaning method would have led to triathlon’s eventual inclusion into the Olympics? Only 6 years after that phone call with Samaranch, McDonald achieved his goal: In 1994 triathlon was officially added to the Olympic program as a fully-vested Olympic sport beginning at the 2000 Games in Sydney.

McDonald’s vision and decisiveness rankled many but produced clear and bold moves, such as the decision in the mid-1990s to make the bike leg draft-legal. Widely panned as a move sure to neuter the cycling leg, history has demonstrated that athletes racing the Olympic-style format ride just as well, or better, than no-draft athletes once they move to no-draft racing. Few can argue that the end product of McDonald’s vision, with pontoon starts, laps, stadiums, create a theater of sport casting triathlon in its best light.

Triathlon’s well-earned reputation as an early and ardent supporter of women’s equality is in large part due to McDonald. The duo of McDonald and early triathlon pioneer Erin Baker of New Zealand was instrumental in bringing the sport – sometimes dragging and kicking – to the front of history. Although triathlon is a fairly recent sport it was one of the earlier to mandate equal money for men and women. It is doubtful triathlon would have evolved as gender-equal were it not for McDonald.

While McDonald generated a reputation for his rough elbows, he was also a charmer. There was never a more civilized, entertaining, energetic, decent and well-spoken personality in triathlon. He could be maddening while entirely likable – lovable – at the same time. I found him maddening. I also loved him.

Les McDonald was a consummate athlete himself, winning his age group at the Hawaiian Ironman 5 times during the mid-80s, after earlier athletic prowess as a skier and mountaineer. He was a transcendent force in triathlon, in sport, in popular culture and his legacy will live as a monument to the history of the sport he shaped.