By Letitia Stein
TAMPA, Fla. (Reuters) - The Ironman Triathlon race illegally charged athletes who were willing to pay for a chance to compete in its world competition, according to U.S. prosecutors, who said on Wednesday that the Florida-based company had agreed to forfeit $2.76 million.
World Triathlon Corp, which owns the Ironman franchise, has held annually a lottery allowing thousands of athletes who did not qualify for its world competition to pay $50 for a chance to win entry, according to court records.
Many paid another $50 to purchase membership in a club that would increase their chances of getting into the championship race held in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii.
"Ironman would have been permitted to give away the opportunity to compete in the race but violated the law when it charged athletes money for the chance to win," said a release from U.S. Attorney Lee Bentley for the Middle District of Florida.
The company is forfeiting its proceeds from the lottery since October 2012, according to the release.
Court records show Ironman also agreed not to contest the violations. However, organizers said they did not believe their actions had been "untoward or inappropriate," according to a statement posted on its website.
"Ironman chose to settle so that we can focus on our priorities – our athletes and our events," the company said, noting that it had cooperated with the investigation.
The company said it would no longer operate the lottery as it currently exists but would honor the slots awarded to this year's winners.
Ironman is a long-distance triathlon featuring a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride and a 26.2-mile run. Ironman events, including shorter races, are held in more than 20 countries.
(This version of the story was refiled to fix day in first paragraph to Wednesday)
(Reporting by Letitia Stein; Editing by Bill Trott)