Versions of swim bike run multi-sports existed in the 1920s but it wasn't until the term triathlon was coined in 1974 in San Diego, that triathlon exploded in popularity. This rapid development drew the attention of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), which initiated a discussion in 1988 to include it in the Olympic Games program. The then IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch held a meeting in Stockholm, Sweden with the intention of making triathlon an Olympic sport as soon as possible. At that meeting Canadian Les McDonald was selected as President to a working committee for triathlon, while Sweden's Sture Jonasson was elected as Secretary.
World Triathlon was founded as the International Triathlon Union (ITU) one year later, on April 1, 1989, at the first ITU Congress in Avignon, France. A total of 30 National Federations attended the initial Congress and preparations were made for the sport's first World Championships to be held in Avignon in August 1989. At this meeting the Olympic distance (later renamed to standard) was set at a 1.5-km swim, 40-km bike and 10-km run the distances were chosen as they were already present at the Olympics for each discipline individually. More than 800 athletes representing 40 countries competed in the first World Championships, and Canada's Les McDonald was elected as ITU's first president in 1989.
ITU began the World Cup series in 1991, staging 11 races in eight countries. Triathlon was officially added to the Olympic Programme by the IOC at its Congress in Paris in 1994. Triathlon made its Olympic debut at the 2000 Games in Sydney, with Switzerland's Brigitte McMahon and Canada's Simon Whitfield earning the sport's first gold medals
Since its inception World Triathlon has maintained its headquarters in Vancouver, Canada until January 1, 2014 when it moved to Lausanne, Switzerland, home of the IOC and many international sporting bodies.
Spain's Marisol Casado was elected as World Triathlon's second president in November 2008. She became an IOC member in February 2010 at the 122nd IOC Session in World Triathlon's hometown of Vancouver. She was re-elected for a new four-year term in October 2012. The Canadian Loreen Barnett maintains its general secretary 3, with Sarah Springman named 1st vice-president and honorary member of the World Federation, hence in 2012 it was the only worldwide federation of an Olympic sport with an all-female management. In December 2016, Marisol Casado was re-elected for a third term as president of the International Federation at the 29th Congress held in Madrid 6.
In 2009 the International Triathlon Federation reorganised its top level competitions changing the World championship to the World Triathlon Series, an eight-stage competition circuit in eight countries, and relegated the world cup down to a second tier series below the world series with less prize money and world ranking points. It also organizes a series of world competitions at different distances from chained sports derived from the triathlon it manages, such as duathlon, aquathlon, cross-triathlon, winter triathlon and paratriathlon.In June 2017, following the renewal of the federal application, the International Olympic Committee included a third triathlon event on the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games, the mixed team relay. With the men's and women's short-distance triathlon events, three triathlon events offer Olympic titles to triathletes. By joining other sports who practice these forms of mixed events, this approach within the scope of the promotion of equality policies between men and women triathletes supported by the international federation and its president Marisol Casado.
In September 2017, World Triathlon announced the death of its founding and honorary President, Les McDonald, at the age of 84. The special press release, retraced his sporting and professional career, focusing on his success in obtaining Olympic status for triathlon in 2000, as well as his leadership of the federation for 20 years. He was awarded the Order of Canada in 2013 for service to the nation and inducted into the its "Hall of Fame" in 2014 for all of his work for triathlon. In October 2020, the ITU officially adopted the name World Triathlon.