Het paginagrote verhaal in The New York Times over de jarenlange strijd om de rechten op Ironman, was zo lang dat we het in twee stukken gehakt hebben. Triatleet John Dunbar (niet te verwarren met de hoofdfiguur in Dances with Wolves) reed in Superman-kostuum rond bij de tweede editie van de Ironman Hawaii. We waren gebleven bij die tweede editie met 15 starters en de aanwezigheid van Sports Illustrated journalist Barry McDermott, de man die triathlon wereldwijd onder de aandacht bracht met zijn artikelen over met name Gordon Haller, John Dunbar en de winnaar, kastelein Tom Warren.
Het verhaal in The New York Times is geschreven door John Branch. Niet de eerste de beste journalist overignes, want in 2013 won hij de Pullitzer prijs met een verhaal over een dodelijke lawine. Terug naar 1979 nu, terug naar Dunbar, Collins, Silk, Haller…
The Enduring Fight Over the First Ironman Triathlon
McDermott described Dunbar as “a blond, open-faced fellow who is very good-natured and shy around strangers. He ran in a women’s race last year wearing a T-shirt that read TOKEN. But there is a serious side to Dunbar, and he had seethed ever since his 1978 defeat. When people mime his hardened competitive spirit, they clench their fists and make chomping, biting gestures, evidently comparing him with an implacable snapping turtle.”
The story was Ironman’s spark. “ABC’s Wide World of Sports” signed up for the third event, along with 108 competitors, in January 1980.
By then, though, John and Judy Collins were gone to the mainland. They were relieved to know that the event, now in the hands of a couple who ran a couple of Nautilus fitness centers, would survive, at least for one more year.
Dunbar is among those who still contend that it was not the Collinses’ race to give away — that it belonged to the collective group of original competitors, only one of whom was John Collins.
“I have respect for John and his wife,” Dunbar said. “But it hits me here” — he tapped his chest — “as a fellow Navy man, that he didn’t consider the team.”
A former Navy SEAL takes action
Valerie Silk was 29 at the time. She was not an athlete and had no interest in endurance sports.
“After the first event, I could see that it needed a race director, and it was something I wanted to try my hand at,” Silk, now 68, said in a recent interview from her home in St. Petersburg, Fla. “So I stepped away from the clubs, turned those over to my husband, and I took on the race. And he was happy for me to do it.”
The couple divorced in 1981, but not before signing an article of incorporation with the state, creating a business called Hawaiian Triathlon Corporation.
“I was so not a business person,” Silk said. “My husband and I had set up a corporation for the Nautilus clubs, so that’s what I thought would be necessary.”
Silk moved the 1981 event from Oahu to Hawaii’s Big Island. Then, with Ironman growing rapidly (the October 1982 race had 850 starters), Silk brought in a minority partner (49 percent) for $145,000 and bought out her ex-husband’s stake.
“We certainly weren’t making any money those first years, but it had the appearance that it did,” Silk said. “People used to walk around looking at the banners from Bud Light and that sort of thing and say, ‘Boy, somebody’s making a lot of money off this event.’”
Dunbar had not competed in Ironman since 1979, but he began showing up in 1982, selling T-shirts and trophies. He presumed a part of Ironman still belonged to him and other original competitors, he said. Why would the whole race belong to Silk, a woman he had never met?
Silk said no original competitors, including Dunbar, showed interest in Ironman until it appeared to be making money. Some still competed.
“I changed the rules wholesale, we moved it off-island, eliminated the rule for mandatory individual support crews, I created my own race form — I changed everything,” Silk said. “And I never heard a peep from anybody.”
Hawaiian Triathlon registered the Ironman trademark in 1983. On the form, Silk called herself “president” of the company and checked a box that read “originator of mark.” Later that year, Silk’s lawyer sent a letter to Dunbar demanding “you immediately cease manufacture, sale and advertising of this trophy.”
Dunbar did not go quietly. In 1984 and 1985, he and lawyers — including his father, John Dunbar Sr., a Navy court judge — sent letters, too, claiming rights to Ironman.
The dispute simmered in the background of Ironman’s success. In 1986, Silk and Ironman handed out prize money for the first time. On the race’s 10th anniversary, in 1988, Silk invited the original competitors to the event, including Dunbar.
There were 1,200 contestants that year and a growing array of Ironman-branded events around the globe. Silk was looking to sell.
“My great desire for the Ironman was that I would be able to put it in the hands of people who could make it bigger and better than I was able to, or had the desire to do,” Silk said. “I wanted it to be cared for because it was my kid. It was my baby.”
In 1989, Silk agreed to sell to a group based in Florida calling itself World Triathlon Corporation, led by a longtime Ironman competitor and eye surgeon named James Gills. Silk has said that the sales price was in the vicinity of $3 million — roughly split with Silk’s partner, and much of it lost to taxes and lawyers’ fees.
Six original competitors — Dunbar, Haller, Ian Emberson, Ralph Yamata, Archie Hapai and Henry Forrest — filed for a temporary restraining order in Hawaii Circuit Court to prevent the sale. Dunbar’s father was their lawyer.
They said they were original members of the Ironman Triathlon Organizing Committee, with “equal membership voting rights and liability sharing.” They claimed that Hawaiian Triathlon “expropriated the performance, commercialized it and commenced producing it” despite protests from Dunbar and others.
Haller, the winner of the first Ironman, has competed in 18 Ironmans in Hawaii (and more elsewhere), including the first 13. When Dunbar approached him and said they should sue Hawaiian Triathlon, Haller went along with the suit. It lives in court records as Gordon W. Haller, et al. v. Hawaiian Triathlon Corp.
“I was happy to join it, once I followed his logic,” Haller said from his home in Arkansas. “I never expected to make billions of dollars at it. I just thought we should have a little piece of it, as intellectual property of some sort.”
The sale to World Triathlon proceeded, but the lawsuit dragged through years of filings and appeals. Ultimately, in 1993, the court ruled that a six-year statute of limitations in Hawaii barred the suit. The transfer to Silk and Grundman, the court said, occurred in 1980. The 1989 lawsuit came too late.
“All of it was so unnecessary,” said Silk, who has had no ties to Ironman since and works as a patient advocate at an eye clinic. “That’s what was so frustrating about it. He had free legal because of his daddy, and he was just keeping the legal dime running on me. It was very costly.”
Silk remains frustrated that five other original competitors, most of whom she did not know, joined Dunbar’s suit.
Emberson, who finished fourth in the 1978 race, was one of them.
“If you talk to Dunbar, he’s a pretty persuasive guy,” Emberson said in a phone interview. “I’m sure we made Valerie’s life hell for a while. But in a way I felt, was it really yours to turn around and sell and make a lot of money from? It really belonged to the original competitors.”
Dan Hendrickson, 11th to finish the first Ironman, did not join the suit.
“Frankly, I don’t know how Valerie Silk took ownership, but I felt the ship had sailed,” said Hendrickson, whose son, the comedian Andy Hendrickson, is working on a documentary about the original event. “I wish I had the foresight to see that we did do something more formal and protect our inheritance from the event, but we didn’t do it.”
Haller, the original champion, said he was barred from competing in Ironman after his participation in the suit, so he helped Dunbar organize triathlons on Maui from 1994 to 1998. They were called “Iron Maui” and “the world’s toughest Ironman.” Dunbar registered trademarks and handed out medals that read “Ironman Finisher.”
Haller eventually was welcomed back. Inducted into the Ironman Hall of Fame in 2003, he was in Kailua-Kona in October, on the 40th anniversary of his victory, to compete at 68. A wreck in the cycling leg slowed him down, and he withdrew midway through the marathon. Recently retired from years as an analyst for Walmart, he plans to spend time as a motivational speaker.
He is a firm believer in Ironman. But he still thinks he and others were cheated of their original stake.
“If you’re an actor and you’re on a TV show and they show reruns of it, you get a residual on that,” Haller said. “It seems like we should get something like that, because we created it. And they certainly never bought it from us.”
John and Judy Collins, the characters in the Ironman story who might have reason for harboring the biggest regrets, were there for the 40th anniversary in October, too. They were feted as the founders and said they were thrilled with Ironman’s continued success.
“We will always feel lucky and grateful that Ironman fell into Silk’s hands,” Judy Collins said in an email. “It was good fortune. Not only did Silk keep our long-distance triathlon going, she nurtured Ironman triathlon around the globe.”
A nearly $1 billion corporation is born
On a perfect day last fall, Dunbar waited for his next guests. They rent rooms, either in his old house or in the new building with the wide view over the trees, all the way across the Hana Highway to the famous surf of Maui’s North Shore.
The place has none of the manicured gloss of the resorts down in Kaanapali or Wailea. It is two acres of grass and banana trees, a bit wild and untamed, which kind of describes Dunbar, too.
In person, Dunbar comes across as a thoughtful man seeking only fairness and practicality. His bookshelf includes works by Aristotle, Socrates and Descartes, books by Thomas Sowell (“The Quest for Cosmic Justice”) and Saul D. Alinsky (“Rules for Radicals),” plus survival books and old National Geographics.
But he is a litigious sort, his name all over legal filings, and persistently aggrieved. With little provocation you will hear stories about his battles with the Maui police, Airbnb, neighbors, a farmers’ market and his own family. To him, they are the unreasonable ones.
“People sometimes say to let it go,” Dunbar said. “But I can’t until I think there’s justice.”
After his Maui triathlon ended in the 1990s, Dunbar resumed selling Ironman trophies and T-shirts. World Triathlon noticed. Dunbar ultimately lost that case, too.
In 2008, World Triathlon sold to an investment firm called Providence Equity. The price was undisclosed, but one report said it was between $50 million and $80 million.
In 2015, after years of aggressive expansion of Ironman events, Providence sold to Wanda Group. Its sports division, based in Guangzhou, is led by Philippe Blatter, nephew of the longtime FIFA president.
Wanda reportedly paid $650 million for Ironman and agreed to take on debt. The value of the transaction was estimated at $900 million.
Dunbar shakes his head at it all. After chopping down bunches of ripe bananas on his property, he left through a door of the cluttered, unfinished ground-floor storage room-office-kitchen-bedroom of his guesthouse.
There was no drywall. An old Ironman trophy, with a nut for a head, sat high on the naked door frame, coated in dust and spider webs.
Dunbar returned with a box. Inside were loose court documents from his failed fights over Ironman. Unlike the one that John Collins delivered in the Honolulu night nearly 40 years ago, with the makings of a billion-dollar brand, the contents of this box turned into nothing.
“People might say it was for the money,” Dunbar said. “For me, it was the principle.”
Dunbar flipped through the pages, wistfully pausing now and again, like someone leafing through an old scrapbook. That is all the box was now — memories, not worth anything to anyone else.