Who owns the Ironman? The 4-decade battle for the world’s most iconic endurance race

A box of papers delivered to a couple in the early years of the Ironman competition set off decades of lawsuits as the event continued climbing the ranks of the world’s most iconic sports brands.


January 28, 2019

Per The New York Times, the Ironman Triathlon puts on more than 260 races in 44 countries and is valued at nearly a billion dollars, making it one of the world’s most premiere sports brands.

Now, over 40 years later, the people at the forefront of its creation haven’t seen a dime, and the legal triathlon continues.

It all started in Hawaii…

Long before the Spartan or Tough Mudder, naval officer John Collins and his wife, Judy, thought to combine 3 of the toughest endurance races: On Feb. 18, 1978, the first “Hawaiian Iron Man Triathlon” was born. There were 15 participants.

John wrote a 3-page rule book with 10 major rules that boiled down to: “Swim 2.4 miles! Run 26 ¼ miles! Bike 112 miles! Brag the rest of your life!”

But, it was rule number 8 — which set the entry fee at $5 and stipulated that the event would be sponsored by participants — that would later cause the biggest headache.

Gettin’ Silky with it

By ’79, Collins needed someone to run the 3rd edition of the event, so he handed over a box of paperwork to husband and wife fitness club owners Hank Grundman and Valerie Silk — no lawyers, no signatures.

By ’82 the race had ballooned in popularity, and John Dunbar (the runner-up in the original 2 races) started selling copies of the original trophy. He, like the other 14 OG racers, presumed a stake of the competition still belonged to him…

So, when Silk registered the Ironman trademark in ’83 and told Dunbar to cease sale of the throwback trophy he was pedaling, he didn’t go quietly.

The real triathlon…

Silk sold the brand for $3m in ’89 and, in 2015, after years of expansion, the brand was acquired by its current owner, a Chinese conglomerate called Dalian Wanda Group, for $650m.

4 decades later, Dunbar continues to argue that the famed triathlon belongs to him and the original 15, even though the courts, and many of Dunbar’s allies, have insisted it’s too late.

Silk said no original competitors showed interest in Ironman until it made money. She changed the rules and re-created the race — “I changed everything,” Silk said. “And I never heard a peep from anybody.”

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