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Triathlon Culture in Germany

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Why is the sport so popular here?

A few years into the game of triathlon, I’ve grown very fond of it. It started with some friends who I declared to be insane after they told me they were doing triathlons. Then they mentioned: “Come on, it’s fun! By the way, we’re just doing the Olympic distance, not an Ironman.” — Right then it didn’t sound so insane anymore. This might be something for me after all, I thought. I can run, I can bike, but what about swimming? Who enjoys swimming?

After I tried it, I was hooked. I’ve completed a full Ironman last year for the first time and I am still proud of that. I thought it was going to be over after that, because what else is there after a completing an Ironman? Still, although I’ve got two daughters and a third on the way and run my own web design company, I find myself signed up at a couple of events again, even having this stupid idea of trying to get to Hawaii some day in the far back of my head. And I’m sure it will stay there for some time.


Triathlon is a very appealing sport, and I am not alone with that. Growing up in Hamburg, Germany, triathlon crossed my way very early. Our city has a particular fondness of the sport. I remember, roughly fifteen years ago a friend of mine sent me the map of a race which was then called “Holsten City Man” and was brand new. The map of the route looked amazing: swimming through our beautiful Alster, biking along the street with the best harbor and Elbe river view, Elbchaussee, and then a final half-loop around the outer Alster river. Hamburg’s best places, all in one race. I thought I would like to do this some day. A couple years later I did, along with 10,000 other Hamburgers.

The race had become the world’s biggest triathlon event. ITU World Triathlon Hamburg has been part of the short distance triathlon championships every year since the beginning. Us amateur athletes love our Hamburg triathlon and 250,000 people love watching and cheering. It is a great place to try triathlon.


Although triathlon is said to be a French idea of the 1920s and was popularized in the US during the fitness boom of the 70s, it got traction in Germany rather quickly after that, as well. The reason might be that it’s a sport anyone can do kind of well. One of the first major triathlon races in Germany happened in the small town of Roth, Bavaria. Take a look at the beginnings here, the video is from 1984. Today the Challenge Roth is the world’s largest long distance triathlon event with about 3,400 participants.

Naked butts in the transition zones on the meadow. The sport has come a long way since then!

The transitions between disciplines make it exciting and feel like a little adventure, compared to, say, just a foot-race. What also might make a difference: Germans were good at it. Still are. Not many Germans have ever stood out at international marathon races, but the biggest triathlon events are often won by Germans. Swimming, biking and running might be in our genes. Being the perfect all-round athlete has its appeal. Roughly 250,000 of Germans participate in an event per year at the moment. The world record is held by a German, the Ironman World Championships were won by a German in 2014 and the year after that as well, by Jan Frodeno. Jan Frodeno was even elected “Athlete of the Year 2015” in Germany, an award that takes into account athletes of all other existing sports. If that doesn’t speak for the growing popularity of the sport in this country, I don’t know what does.

One thing every triathlete does is try to promote the sport. I find myself doing that at every chance I get. That’s probably because it’s such a great sport and crossing the finish line feels so good. Swimming, biking, running, what’s the big deal? You’ll never find out unless you try — you’ll like it!

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