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A suit filed at the end of May against Ironman and the World Triathlon Corporation alleges the company and its subsidiary, Competitor Group, owe athletes refunds for events canceled or postponed due to COVID-19.
“Defendants should not be permitted to force Plaintiff and members of the class to bear the financial burden of the events canceled as a result of COVID-19,” reads the complaint, which was filed in the Middle District of Florida, where Ironman is headquartered.
The complaint was filed on behalf of one athlete, Mikaela Ellenwood, a Colorado resident who had registered for the Rock n’ Roll San Francisco half-marathon, which was scheduled for April 5. She had also purchased flights and accommodations for the event, according to the complaint. When that race was canceled on March 14, registrants had their entries deferred to the next year and were not given the option of a refund.
Ironman officials confirmed that the current policy for COVID-related cancelations or postponements does not include refunds to athletes. (The World Triathlon Corporation operates both Ironman races and Rock n’ Roll marathons and half-marathons, as well as a number of other events around the world. The company typically puts on hundreds of mass participation races.)
As the global pandemic has continued, large mass gatherings and races have been canceled in most countries. The New York Marathon, scheduled for November, was recently canceled.
Ironman officials also confirmed that until an event is officially canceled or postponed, the standard non-COVID cancellation policy is still in place. Those specific policies can vary from race to race, but typically mean an athlete can not transfer or defer without paying a fee or losing a portion of their entry fee, and an athlete can not get a refund unless they’ve purchased registration insurance. That means for athletes waiting to find out if their race is canceled or postponed, there are typically few options. Ironman officials did note, however, they are working with athletes who have travel restrictions across borders preventing them from making it to scheduled races.
Once a race has been officially canceled or postponed, due to concerns around the spread of COVID-19, athletes are then being offered a choice of transferring to another event or deferring to the next year.
However, this is where some athletes have had complaints—both because they have to wait for an official cancellation or postponement decision, and because they feel they are not being given enough flexibility once a decision is made.
Morgan Nixon was scheduled to do her first Ironman in St. George, Utah for her 30th birthday. She had a dozen friends and family flying out and had booked a huge Airbnb. When the race was rescheduled to this fall, she said, she was given three days to decide if she wanted to do the rescheduled race in September or defer to an event the next year. Because St. George will not be a full Ironman next year, she was given a specific other Ironman race in another city on another date as her option.
It was stressful, she said, and no one really knows what’s going to happen. She picked this September, but now she’s worried about the pandemic still ongoing and wants to defer—but she said she spent six weeks trying to get ahold of someone at the company to get an answer on her options.
“Now, I don’t want to participate in Ironman in general, they’ve gotten me so angry,” she said. “There’s a lack of care for what people are actually going through.”
That frustration is understandable, said Jennifer Poppe, a class-action attorney and partner at Vinson & Elkins, but it may not be legally enforceable.
“This would be a really hard lawsuit to win,” she said, depending on what you agreed to when you registered.
When an athlete registers for an event, there are a number of waivers and terms and conditions they accept and agree to. For instance, it’s fairly common to acknowledge that you will not be refunded in the event of a cancellation due to weather or due to an act of God—commonly referred to as a “force majeure” clause. Poppe noted the complaint filed in the case does not say what terms and conditions the athletes agreed to when they registered.
While lawsuits around mass participation event cancellations are rare, in part because of those waivers, there have been a number of cases starting to be filed relating to shareholders and unfulfilled contracts from COVID-19, she said. The legal question will likely be if Ironman upheld its end of the race registration contract—and that will likely come down to those terms and conditions.
Race registration for Ironman events now appear to include a waiver outlining acceptance of the risk of COVID-19 and agreeing not to hold the company liable.
Ironman officials said they do not comment on pending litigation.
However, they did point to the complexity of managing various regulations across hundreds of different events and countries as part of the reason why they have not offered blanket refunds or deferrals for all races this year, and why they are trying to be flexible with providing athletes as many options as possible.
CEO Andrew Messick has also said, previously, that what they’re hearing from athletes isn’t that they want refunds, it’s that they want to race as soon and as safely as possible.
The complaint, though, takes issue with this argument. “In reality, Defendants’ response is neither flexible nor understanding of participants’ concerns,” it reads.
The case will now attempt to be certified as a class for the purposes of a class-action, which requires that certain criteria be met and which a judge would rule on. If certified, it would then open up to all those in similar circumstances.