Fans of Faris Al-Sultan of Germany cheered Saturday as he headed out onto the marathon course at the Ironman triathlon in Kona. Some 1,800 triathletes, families, support crews and race crews converged on the town, creating a buzz that was overwhelming for some residents.
Ironman gets a mixed reception from Kona residents
KAILUA-KONA » Those who love it plan holidays in Kona. Those who don't plan trips out of town.
Since the early 1980s this coastal village has been the epicenter of the Ironman world triathlon championship race, which attracts some 1,800 triathletes, families, support crews and race staff from around the world.
Too often for some, all the activity overwhelms the town.
This year, the event closed off Kailua Pier and some surrounding streets to traffic from Thursday afternoon through yesterday morning. Stores shut down while thousands of spectators lined the race course for at least a mile. Companies offering boat, snorkeling, scuba diving and parasailing tours had to suspend operations without compensation from the organizers.
"So often, I hate it. We lose money every year because of it," said Donnia Bondallian, who operates a tennis academy in Kona. "As a business owner, we don't profit from it at all. You can't work; you have to close your business."
But she says there is still a lot to be enjoyed. And with so much else in town paralyzed, she says residents might as well volunteer to help the triathlon go smoothly.
Since the first Kona race in 1981, Bondallian has joined an army of unpaid volunteers -- 5,000 this year -- who help with race preparations, aid stations and medical and massage tents.
"If you don't like it, you either leave town or just stay home and clean house," she said. "You can hate it and still enjoy the day. You get to meet all these amazing people."
One business that did open race day was Beaches Swimwear Hawaii, directly across Alii Drive from the finish line.
Owner Terri Ribordy said as the event has grown, it seems to have left the local population adrift.
"It's different every year," she said. "The only negative I feel is that it seems Ironman is getting a little more separated from the locals and the vendors. It used to be really pleasant, but now it almost feels like it's happening around you, rather than with you."
Ribordy said she has stayed open each of the eight years she has owned the shop but might close for race day next year.
"More and more businesses are closing, but partly because you almost feel more shut off," she said. "And the athletes don't shop."
But it is not all bad news for Kona.
"We get so much positive exposure from all the visitors and the television coverage," Ribordy said.
About 300 journalists from around the world dropped in for this year's race, including NBC. The network plans to broadcast an Ironman special on Nov. 12.
A Hungarian crew trailed compatriot Petr Kropko as he raced to a 23rd-place finish. They will also shoot features on Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, kite-surfing on Maui and big-wave surfing on Oahu's North Shore.
While the coverage reaches millions around the world, it is the race and the place that keeps people coming back.
Jeanne O'Brien, a nurse from Seattle, has helped staff the medical tent for five years. She uses her vacation time from Harborview Hospital to come to Hawaii.
"I like it so much I bought a condo here last year. The first time I stepped off the airplane here, I wished I could just pack everything up and move here right away," she said.