Nose around almost any industry and you find that the real players—the ones who make serious money—own or control some form of valuable "intellectual property." That is the term given to equity that is ethereal or cerebral, not tangible or physical. Intellectual property is usually the most valuable property a well-known company has. The swoosh on a pair of shoes, the O on a pair of sunglasses, the pentagon for a hood ornament all virtually guarantee that a product will sell, and at a premium over its rivals.
One would be hard-pressed to come up with an industry, activity or economy in which one single trademark is more powerful or over-arching than in triathlon, and the trade name is Ironman. Nothing is even a close second. Over the next several days Slowtwitch will do its best to describe the ownership and use of this mark.
It hasn’t been an easy story to research. Almost nobody would speak on the record. But they were all eager to speak. Most with whom I spoke were licensees, infringers (real or accused), journalists, or attorneys. They were often in, or recently out of, litigation or negotiation. They may’ve been under a gag order or covered by a non-disclosure agreement or just plain afraid of what might happen if they spoke on the record.
I intended this article to be a 500-word one-day overview. Getting the silent treatment, however, had the effect of waving a raw rib-eye steak under my nose. The result is a weeklong series.
WHO OWNS IRONMAN?
Intellectual property might be a trade secret, a software source code, the recipe for Coca-Cola’s formula or the ingredients in a restaurant’s secret barbecue sauce. Most of the time intellectual property is contained in one of two categories: patents or trademarks. Patents have a limited life. They give their inventors a head start on those who’d come along and copy the product, but such protection lasts no longer than 20 years. Trademarks last forever, as long as they’re adequately used and protected.
The great irony, of course, is that those inside this sport own few of its most valuable marks outright. The "Ironman" trademark is owned by Marvel Comics. Ironman is a superhero, as it turns out—minor one though he may be, and all my research indicates that Superman, from rival DC Comics, could kick his butt.
The "sister" mark to the name Ironman has been termed "M-dot" and denotes a large block-letter M with a dot over it. Most of us have had some form or other of this trademark on our bodies, most likely on our wrists, keeping time via our Timex Ironman watch. The French sailboard company Mistral owns this mark, and the design for its original registration is below.
Neither Marvel Comics nor Mistral Sailboards could’ve imagined the windfall that would come their way but, as the saying goes, sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good. Ironman as an activity was a spontaneous generation of a group of hardy souls who might’ve executed an intellectual property search had they the foggiest notion that their beer bet would turn into the megalithic archetype for an arduous endurance event.
Fast-forward to the present day and we see that the "owner" of the Ironman, World Triathlon Corporation of Tarpon Springs, Florida, appears largely to be a repackager and relicenser—a wholesaler, if you will—of trademarks owned outside the sport.
I must stop here and admit that much of what I wrote above is the collective opinion of many with whom I’ve spoken, and it is difficult, if not impossible, to nail down the story in absolute terms. While six or eight people may all say the same thing—"M-dot is owned by Mistral Sailboards, right?"—we may all be passing around the same urban legend. Mistral’s ownership might be right up there with that old saw: "Get out of the house, he’s calling from the upstairs bedroom!" At the same time, those with whom I’ve spoken are the few who were in on some of the signficant license and sponsor discussions and negotiations in the 1980s and early ‘90s. One reports he was asked to sign a particularly onerous non-disclosure agreement and refused—at which point, he reports, his access to WTC business was cut off. Non-disclosures now in place with former owners and employees certainly account for my inability to get them to speak to the subject of WTC’s intellectual property, either on or off the record.
Who owns what should be easy to discover. The fact is, though, that neither WTC and its trademark attorneys in Chicago; nor Mistral and its attorneys in New York; nor Marvel Comics and its attorneys, also in New York, would say what they own. This is curious to me because one of the signal features of trademark law is that you clearly state—especially when asked—what it is you own. The very fact that WTC will not state what it owns seems intuitively (though I am not a lawyer) to erode the protection they covet. One explanation for WTC’s reluctance is that it purposely invites vagueness to perhaps widen the scope of what it owns, or claims to own. I’ll write about that in a later installment.
Regardless of what WTC’s folks own or don’t own, there is no need to cry for them. They’ve done very well by all estimates—but again, only they know how well that is. WTC’s mission may be to make "its" trademark one of the world’s best known, but everything else about this company is a jealously guarded secret. To say it is a private company is not simply descriptive of its ownership structure—it’s a very understated adjective denoting the company’s culture of secrecy.
One ill-guarded secret is that WTC has finally, after more than a decade of trying, secured the rights from Marvel Comics to license the term "Ironman" apart from the word "triathlon." Prior to that the two words always had to be linked together.
One question still unanswered is whether WTC owns the Ironman trademark for any categories, and if so, is it owned outright or only under contractual conditions? There is an original registration for Ironman Triathlon, filed in 1981 by Hawaiian Triathlon Corporation—the company that sold the Ironman to World Triathlon Corporation. The registration was granted in 1983 and assigned to WTC pursuant to the sale. The assignment to WTC was completed in 1990.
That intellectual property—for "Ironman Triathlon"—is technically a "service mark" and refers to a protected name that corresponds to a service as opposed to a product. The service to which the mark refers is the race. In other words, the mark was granted to Hawaiian Triathlon Corporation for the purpose of protecting the name against others who’d want to put on a similar event.
Is this mark owned outright, with no strings attached? Or is it owned only via an agreement with Marvel Comics, i.e.: "We won’t challenge your registration if..." Very few people know the answer to that question, and it appears that most or all of them—whether current or former employees and even former owners—are bound by non-disclosure agreements.
The difference between Ironman and marathon racing around the world is a topic that often pops up. The term "marathon" is generic; it is not owned by anyone. Anybody can put on a marathon and nobody has to pay a license fee for use of the word. Not so, as we all know, with the term Ironman. The question is, is this a net loss or gain for the sport of triathlon? Many will disagree with me, but I believe it is a net gain.
WTC and the Hawaiian Ironman Corporation have done an excellent job of "policing" the quality of any race calling itself an Ironman, and in the opening two decades of triathlon I believe that was, and still remains, of paramount importance. WTC has never had a problem paying its bills, and if it is hard and tough, perhaps that goes with the territory.
More to the point, there is a lot of money paid into WTC, and a good portion of it is paid back out again. Were there no license to be bought, Timex would’ve just slapped the name Ironman on its watches and not paid a license fee. As it is, the look and feel of the Hawaii Ironman, its expert race direction (which costs money), and its prize money would perhaps be a fraction of what it is without Timex’s (and others’) license money. We’ll never know if I’m right or wrong about that.
FIRST AMENDMENT PROTECTION?
I remember crossing the finish line of the Hawaii Ironman in 1981, the first year the event was held on the Kona coast. At that time, and through the 1980s, it was common for the term Ironman to be used both as a describer of the event and as a noun describing a person who completed the event. "I finished the Ironman," also meant that, "I am an Ironman."
WTC appears to believe that it owns the right to both usages, and a small book publisher called Breakaway Books found that out via a letter delivered by a sheriff not long ago. It published a book by Kara Thom called "Becoming an Ironman," and in it she recounts the stories of those who describe the experience of crossing the finish after their first Ironman. Thom sat down at the kitchen tables of MOPers and BOPers, with pros like Chris Legh, Joanna Zeiger and Karen Smyers, and with other notables such as John Collins, Carlos Moleda, and the Hoyts in researching this book.
The book remains in print because of an agreement reached between Breakaway Books publisher Garth Battista and WTC. Battista is glad that the book is in print, but he's not happy about the experience. He is understandably––as an editor and journalist––upset at what he feels is an abridgement of free speech. In frustration, he says that in the absence of a descriptive noun, "We need a common, easy-to-say word" that describes a person who's crossed the finish line of an Ironman.
He's got a point. What would a marathon finisher say: "I am a 26.2-consecutive-mile runner?"
Alongside the First Amendment question is whether trademark protection exists for such a term. Has the noun "ironman" ever actually been trademarked? Whether or not that is the case, has the freely allowed––even fostered––usage of "ironman" as a noun throughout the '80s and ever since blown the trade protection of ironman for that usage? How many times have Mike Plant, Steve King, and Mike Reilly said over the years to those running down Alii Drive, "Congratulations, you are an ironman!" and "Here comes another ironman!" It is a well-known legal doctrine that you can't pick and choose trademark protection. You always protect it, period. Or you lose it.
But forget the legal issues for a moment. Let us look at the wisdom of this decision. Kara Thom is now writing stories about the Ironman, and about those who've become ironmen and ironwomen, in mainstream media. Articles she's written are coming out in the Dallas Morning News, and in Fit Magazine. All this springs from her book , which is as of today number 2,548 on Amazon.com's sales. That may not seem like much, but for the sake of comparison I checked out the relative position of my all-time favorite book while growing up––G.K. Chesterton's The Napoleon of Notting Hill––and it ranked 155,871. So: Is it infringement, or is it brand-building? That's a hard question.
WTC will not, of course, discuss this book with me. Its principals have discussed it with others I've interviewed, and the same phrase keeps popping up. It appears that WTC's doctrine is, simply, this: If you're going to make money off a project that leverages our brand-building, we deserve a fair share.
It's hard to argue with that. In fact, I agree with that sentiment. But this one is right on the edge, and it's why I found it compelling. While WTC employs people to police unauthorized use of the term Ironman––in essence to keep people from using the term––it employs other people to foster its usage. I, for example, will get press credentials for the upcoming race in Kona, and WTC hopes that I will write about all things Ironman to all Slowtwitch readers around the world. That is part of how WTC "builds the brand." WTC's very capable PR folk are as good as any in the triathlon business at making that happen.
But as to the commercial use of the term Ironman, let's face it. Whether it is Slowtwitch, the Los Angeles Times, or Sports Illustrated, we're all in it for the money at some level. The distinction seems to be, in Kara Thom's case, the shelf life of the story. If it's a temporal––almost disposable––story, such as the article I'm writing, it's news and therefore legitimate. If it's a book, it is, supposedly, a less time-sensitive commercial project outside the scope of mainstream journalism—and therefore a potential infringer.
While I understand WTC's view on "Becoming an Ironman," I think it's probably an overreach—perhaps legally and more so when it comes to the wisdom of its tactics. But there is a hard rule in trademark protection: You've got to be uniform. You've got to call the high strike for everybody, or else you can't call it at all. What if next year somebody comes out with "The Ironman Annual," a coffee-table book full of event photos? That's certainly something I'd litigate over, if I were WTC. But in court I'd have to explain why I allowed Thom to write her book. Also, it should be noted, Breakaway Books didn't get hit with a surprise. WTC warned in advance that it was in trademark infringement.
The question is one, I think, of reach and vigor. My view is apparent: I think it's on balance a good thing that WTC has husbanded, built and grown the brand "Ironman" over the years. Nothing low-quality gets to use that name, and you can't applaud that fact without accepting the hard-line police work that goes with it. But how much does WTC want to own, and how vigorously will it defend against unauthorized use? It recently applied for trademarks for Half-Ironman (the graphic to the right is from its registration application). What are its intentions? WTC personnel have previously said that it's OK to use the term Ironman and Half-Ironman as distance describers. "Oceanside Triathlon, a half-Ironman distance race," appears to be acceptable. But what about "Oceanside half-Ironman?" WTC won't answer me on that.
THE PREFIX "IRON"
You make few friends in WTC’s line of work. As is the case with a traffic cop, a protector of trade rights spends his day delivering news people don’t want to hear. It's no wonder, then, that most of the people I can find who have good things to say about WTC’s licensing practices are those who’ve entered into licenses eagerly, and prior to using WTC’s trade names. Would it be any different for any other company seeking to license and protect a name? Probably not.
It’s a funny area of civil law in which accused infringers rarely end up having their days in court. It’s not litigation they’re afraid of, but the cost of litigation. They all appear to believe they’ll prevail and are willing to accept the financial risk of a big settlement for the plaintiff. The problem is the cost of getting that far. The question is: How many multiples of hundreds of thousands of dollars will you spend defending yourself in court, should the lawsuit go full term?
If one takes as axiomatic that one is "caught infringing" at the beginning of the evolution of the product cycle, the math is easy. A project becomes economically unfeasible when future profits are pitted against the litigation costs. So though a company’s principals may be left with bad tastes in their mouths, they usually "cease and desist" or sign a license agreement.
It appears an insidious process to those forced to make decisions for economic reasons while violating, in their minds, any sense of fairness. As one attorney put it, in layman’s slang, "People who got money got more rights than people who don’t."
Accused infringers want their day in court, but the entry cost is out of reach.
"It’s a weird area of commercial life where ‘might makes right,’" an accused Ironman infringer told me. "I wanted all of those [legal] questions answered [in court]. [But] where they don’t legally own a trademark, they de facto do. It felt a little sick."
This is the sentiment I get from those who are "caught infringing" by WTC around the edges of the trademark––people who’ve been nabbed over the years using a piece of the mark, or using the mark in a way they assumed (and still believe) is protected by the First Amendment.
It’s hard to blame WTC, though. From its point if view, it’s just protecting its property. The compelling real estate of this story to me, though, is the yonder border of that property. How far afield can one get from "Ironman Triathlon" and still get a mortar shell––in the form of a registered letter from WTC––lobbed in? Does WTC own, for example, the word "iron?"
In the case of Irongirl clothing, I could find no "Irongirl" or "Iron Girl" trademark owned by WTC at the time the license agreement was being negotiated that would have kept Irongirl’s owners from using the term. But in trademark law a mark may not be "the same or confusingly similar" or it is deemed to be in infringement. It would seem intuitive to me that the "confusingly similar" doctrine is what WTC rests on in this instance. (But as a layman, it’s just my guess.)
While Irongirl’s principals were, as licensees, understandably reticent to offer much detail, an examination of the case and public records appears to show––perhaps as part of a licensing arrangement––that WTC "cleaned up" the trademark. WTC did this by persuading others (via the carrot or the stick) who’d used the term Iron girl or Irongirl to give up such use and make way for the women’s clothing line featuring the distinctive flower logo.
In WTC’s defense, this "trademark cleaning" had to be a big plus for Irongirl. All the way around, maybe the WTC license is a good deal for Irongirl, even if WTC’s claim of ownership of this mark is liberal. Without looking at the entire agreement and set of financial statements, I wouldn’t be able to render an informed opinion. Either way, WTC has done an artful job of insinuating itself into a place in which much of the commercial world thinks it owns not just Ironman, but Iron+.
WTC does seem to have commenced the registration process of "Iron+" with its registration of, among others, Iron Gear. But it’s not stopping with that. It is now apparently in negotiations or discussions with Trico Sports, makers of the popular bicycle carrier Iron Case. About this I do have some personal recollection.
My original commercial intersection with triathlon was as a struggling maker of a new wetsuit called Quintana Roo, which is now owned by the parent company of Litespeed Bicycles. During this time, in 1986, my good friend George Yates––whom I first met at the Hawaii Ironman in ’81––was "cooking" seat pads in his garage. I was running QR out of my walk-in closet. George unfortunately "cooked" his entire garage one day, and a confluence of interests caused us to rent and share a commercial space.
George Yates’ company, Trico Sports, is today a respected maker of bicycle saddles and seat pads and is now owned by his brother, Paul. Back in ’87, when George was still cooking his seat pads in a mold in the back of our building, he hit on the idea of making a better bicycle travel carrier and invented the Iron Bag. In ’91 the name was changed to Iron Case because, while Iron Bag was a soft case, in ’91 Trico decided to morph it into a hard-shell carrier.
WTC apparently believes that Iron Case is an infringement on its intellectual property. Out of respect for the Yates brothers and for WTC, I didn’t pry, and will not write, about any actions or negotiations between the two parties—except to say that discussions are ongoing. Neither will I weigh in with an opinion on the merits of WTC’s claim—mainly because I’m not an attorney and my opinions are only those of a journalist, and certainly not those of an expert in intellectual property law.
It is interesting to note, however, that to the best of my research and personal recollection, the Hawaiian Triathlon Corporation, and WTC afterward, may've never objected to the use of the name Iron Bag. Its registration was filed in ’89 and was granted in ’90. The registration was cancelled commensurate with the time the Iron Case came into use, in 1991. Trico filed an Iron Case registration in ’97, and it was registered in June 1999. WTC’s complaint was filed with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office in September 2000.
Owners of the Ironman cannot claim that they did not know about Iron Bag: It was the official bicycle carrier of the race. Its subsequent morphing into Iron Case cannot have escaped WTC’s notice and, over the past decade—during which time Trico was not a sponsor of the Ironman—Trico continued to make the case. Did WTC object to Iron Bag or Iron Case at any time in the 13 years prior to 2000? I don’t know.
You snooze, you lose is of legal import in this kind of law, and strictly from a legal view did WTC snooze on this one? It might depend on whether WTC objected to Trico about its use of the word "iron" during this 13-year time period, and about that I just don't know. If WTC did object, I can't find a public record of it. It may play out like a game of poker. Will WTC take this one all the way to its legal terminus, and regardless, does Trico believe it will? Will Trico roll the dice and spend the money to defend, or pay the much cheaper price of a license?
Some industry insiders say WTC has claimed it owns "Iron + gender," presumably including irongirl, ironkids, ironbabies, and so forth. Obviously it is not only gender it believes it owns, however, because of its opposition to Iron Case. While WTC may cast a wide net in the area of "iron +," even the narrower "Iron + gender" is now being put to the test.
A popular tea maker––especially if you shop in natural food stores, as my wife and I often do––is Traditional Medicinals. If you’ve got Throat Coat or Breathe Easy tea in your cupboard, this is the maker. You may also drink Iron Woman tea, and if you do WTC apparently thinks it ought to get a piece of that action.
The application for Iron Woman tea was filed in March 1997 by Traditional Medicinals, and was formally protested by WTC in early ’98. But the company hasn’t backed down and still continues to sell Iron Woman tea. Lynda Sadler, president of Traditional Medicinals, said: "We fiercely protect our marks. Names like Throat Coat and Iron Woman are very descriptive of what we make." In the case of the company’s Breathe Easy mark, for example, the tea maker has had to stop infringers several times, and that includes nasal strip maker Breathe Right. Sadler said that product-maker’s first choice for a name was Breathe Easy.
WTC’s litigation with Traditional Medicinals has been active since since 1998, and depositions have been scheduled. It appears that both parties may be prepared to go the distance.
I recognize that much of what I’ve written above may portray WTC as particularly aggressive to some readers, but I don’t mean it that way. As one attorney put it, "WTC has every right to cast as wide a net as it deems fit." And this came from an attorney whose client has opposed WTC in litigation.
TIMEX––THE CASH COW
It’s a wonder the folks at WTC can sleep nights.
Before accused infringers shout "Amen, brother," to that sentiment, I’m not referring to any ethical lapse.
There is another—and probably more fair and apropos—reason WTC folk may have a hard time getting enough Zs. When you think about it, what does WTC own? Events? Only in a transitory way. It seems hard to imagine now, but several times in the past Big Island residents have threatened to close down the race. The same could happen in any community. It almost happened in venerable Iron locales like Penticton, and it has happened in other places—most recently in California.
If you’re WTC, you can lose powerful and historically important licensees, such as is now happening with that heretofore most solid event license holder, Detlef Kuhnel of Ironman Europe.
When all is said and done, intellectual property is the only thing WTC owns, and even then it has this property only through contractual relationships with original or collaborative mark holders like Marvel Entertainment. It’s got to be nerve-wracking. I remember a story told to me by a race promoter who sought a license directly from Marvel about a decade ago. Marvel had just been bought by MacAndrews and Forbes, the holding company owned by Ron Perelman, one of America’s richest men. Companies like Revlon, Coleman (the camping equipment makers), Golden State Bancorp and others are part of its portfolio. Marvel is not among its biggest holdings.
As my friend presented his offer to buy an event director’s license (which he did not get), the person MacAndrews and Forbes installed at Marvel insisted that he didn’t know anything about the Ironman trademark. Finally, after my friend’s arguments of proof, the Marvel executive said, "You mean that’s the same trademark as that race in Hawaii? We own that?"
This story is meant to demonstrate just how insignificant our sport’s commercial impact is in the world of big business. Considering that, it’s a marvel—no pun intended—that WTC has managed to thrive during the decade it’s been in business.
Obviously things have changed over the years, and Marvel Comics knows and certainly respects the work WTC has done in building the Ironman brand and mark. But when one realizes that the only thing WTC owns is its ability to generate license and usage fees—and that even much of this intellectual property is not owned without strings—it is easy to see why it takes nerves of steel to be in this business. One can understand why WTC polices its marks with a heavy hand.
The backbone of WTC’s license business is its relationship with Timex. The terms of the deal with this large watch company are not public, but a Timex executive did tell me this: "It’s an expensive license." Costly though it may be, if there is a textbook license deal, this is the one. Timex’s Ironman watch may be the best-selling watch in the world, and it is certainly the most popular sports watch.
Both Timex and WTC cherish the deal. "We built the brand together," said Christine Johnson, Timex’s manager of corporate sponsorships and promotions. "We’ll always be partners."
WTC uses the same language, and "always" and "partners" pepper the remarks made by both companies’ execs.
You don’t succeed without being tough and shrewd, however, and Timex has tested its ability to make a non-Ironman watch that did not feature an M-dot or the name Ironman. It has made a watch labeled only "Triathlon" over the years, and while I don’t know, industry insiders have told me it has never been as popular as the Ironman watch. While WTC must be cautious and nervous about Timex’s attempts to make a generically branded product, the fact is the Ironman mark has been pure gold for both companies.
WTC’s ability to duplicate that success has had its ups and downs. Just this year its deal with Schwinn went south, but through no fault of WTC. (Schwinn recently filed for bankruptcy.) Isuzu has pulled out of triathlon sponsorship—again not a fault of WTC. When a corporate changeover took place last year, the new president of American Isuzu Corporation didn’t have the same passion for cycling and triathlon as did outgoing president Bob Reilly.
Perhaps the Foster Grant Ironman sunglass collection could be the next big winner. Though this company doesn’t make timepieces, it is probably the closest thing to the "Timex of eyewear." It has strong distribution, makes a quality product relative to others in its price range, and produces for the fat of the bell curve among buyers.
This is, of course, the essence of a good license deal: to leverage a golden brand name against a product made at a lesser price and geared toward a consumer who aspires toward the image the trademark represents.
"Foster Grant is a great partner," said WTC’s Priscilla Fraiegari, "and the product is going quite well. They’ve got a strong brand name themselves. We’re excited about that deal."
THE IRONMAN EVENTS
In this final installment you'll find no juicy tidbits on how WTC runs the events side of its business. There are several licensees––three in particular, in Europe, North America, and the Pacific Rim––and I suppose they pay a good deal of money into WTC. How much, and what percentage of the total WTC revenues does it represent? I don't know, and it's not really what's important to me. My goal was to put a face on a company that is very important to triathletes around the world, and even then I've reported on just part of the face. Somebody else can cover the nose, the ears, and the eyes, I guess it's the teeth I've been writing about.
In the end, the Ironman is an idea. There is no tangible reason why these distances are special, or why one can’t swim, bike and run these mileage amounts by themselves, in their own town. There is no intrinsic reason why Ironman-distance races in central Florida or Northern California should be any less appealing than those in Canada, or Wisconsin, or even Kona.
But when the Ironman name is not attached, it’s just not the same, is it?
Even today, among seasoned, hardened veterans of multisport, there is something about the brand. It seems not to matter how many Ironman races Graham Fraser erects on the North American continent, or how far flung they are from where triathletes live—they’re destined to fill months before they’re held. Same thing in Europe. Why is that?
Ironman is an idea. WTC sells the idea. That’s the only thing it sells. It can be accused of cantankerous behavior. Alongside that, though, Ironman remains a strong and rich idea. You must lay it all at WTC’s feet.
Part of the richness in the name is due to WTC policing the prefix or word "iron" in event names. There is no Iron Tour in America, nor is there an Iron Mountain race, but both were attempted prior to WTC’s intervention. Is this overly aggressive policing?
To that I report what someone close to WTC told me: "Let’s face it. The only reason somebody would add the word ‘iron’ to his event is to trade off what WTC’s doing. Maybe it’s 20 percent, maybe it’s five percent, but these people use the term ‘iron’ as a way to draw off the intellectual property belonging to WTC."
It must be acknowledged that this sentiment is true. One might argue that WTC has no right to a standalone "iron." One might seek to leverage a part of WTC’s property for commercial purposes and apply a legal argument to get around paying a license. If a product or service is sold into the multisport community, though, it is obvious that "iron" leverages "Ironman." It seems hard to fault WTC for using its own legal maneuvers to collect monies in proportion to the work it’s done to buy and preserve the brand.
I make no judgment on WTC. To state that WTC is variously right, wrong, good, bad, evil, virtuous, talented and naive is to state the obvious. What company isn’t? What person isn’t?
My hope is also WTC’s goal: The brand must remain strong. The idea must be clear and rich. That can only happen as long as the experience of running down the final chute is as awe-inspiring and life-changing for all new and future Ironman finishers as it has been for the past generation.
My concern is that I don’t see any key WTC executives training to run down that chute themselves, and that is new. In times past David Yates, David Sitton, and other WTC employees took up the gauntlet and found out for themselves what the Ironman experience was all about, and that experience tangibly changed their management of the company.
It’s hard to build good surfboards if you don’t surf, and I’m not sure you build good Ironman races if you don’t have staff members who do triathlons themselves. (Fortunately, WTC remains close to folks like Graham Fraser, who is preparing to race one of his own Ironmans within the year, as he has done before.)
WTC was not thrilled about me writing this series. As I wrote in my opining remarks, this is a private group. But they bought a "movie star" brand name, and I’m not sure it’s fair or even reasonable to expect to stay private when your job is selling one of the world’s great badges.
I heard a story yesterday about an age-group man who’s traveled to his third Ironman so far this year, failing by minutes or seconds each time to get his Kona spot. Yes, WTC owns the Ironman. When people want what you’ve got to this degree, though, there’s equity invested. Maybe this man doesn't have legal ownership––any more than three of four million Yankee fans have an interest in their baseball team––but he certainly deserves to know what makes this brand, and the company behind it, tick. WTC is an owner, but also a caretaker. It is charged with protecting a precious and rare dream that is nurtured daily by thousands around the world. What animates the Ironman brand? Passionate athletes, with the stories they bring to the start line. Without them, the brand is worth nothing.
WTC may own the stock, but the true stakeholders in the Ironman experience are the triathletes who bring the races to life again and again. So, just as a publicly traded company would report its progress to shareholders, so is it perhaps not surprising that Ironman’s stakeholders would want a glimpse into how the WTC functions.
This company would prefer to have people like me not write about its business. Though privacy––even secrecy is not too strong a word––is its option, it serves no function that I can see. WTC may not be perfect––who is?––but it does good work for triathlon. It has its detractors, and it has much to be proud of. As has been said, "Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works."