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some text Brandon Cantrell, left, is checked in by Ironman volunteer Amy Meller on Friday, September 26, 2014 in preparation for the inaugural Little Debbie Chattanooga Ironman.
some text David Cook

Walker County, Ga., authorities are still chasing down the saboteurs who dumped tacks and oil on the Ironman Chattanooga race course last month.

Good.

But that may not have been the day's only crime. In a way, Ironman heisted a lot of our time and energy without paying for it.

The first of five races here, the Ironman Chattanooga debut went swimmingly, with one big reason why: our volunteers.

All 4,000 of them.

They worked from before sunup to after sundown -- passing out water, unzipping wet suits, marshaling the race course -- just like the hundreds of thousands of volunteers who will help put on the 100-plus Ironman races around the globe.

But is it really volunteerism?

Or free labor disguised as volunteerism?

Because Ironman isn't some compassionate, shoestring nonprofit organization.

It's a brand.

And it's owned and operated by a corporation making big mint, much of it off the backs of volunteers.

Let's say each Chattanooga volunteer worked a 10-hour day. Making minimum wage, that's $72.50 per worker (before taxes), which means Ironman Chattanooga received nearly $300,000 in donated labor.

Plus, triathletes forked up a $650 entry fee, which means -- 2,300 racers x $650 -- that Ironman Chattanooga made almost $1.5 million in race fees alone. (Next year, the entry fees goes up to $685.)

Throw in corporate sponsors, merchandise sales and Ironman has banked, by my count, at least $2.5 million from Chattanooga.

Sure, it costs to organize, host and create such a logistics-heavy race. And yes, it brings an estimated $40 million over five years to our city, with a slice of charity on the side: the Ironman Foundation raised $130,000 from our race; much of that will go to local nonprofits. But don't clap too loudly. The money came from 200 or so triathletes who paid an exaggerated entry fee -- $1,300, with half going to Ironman, and half to its foundation -- in order to secure a race spot.

That $130k is chips and salsa compared to the meaty annual revenues -- "more than $150 million," Fortune reported -- posted by the private equity firm Providence Equity Partners, which owns the World Triathlon Corp. that operates Ironman.

Why should it make its fortunes off volunteer efforts?

There may come a time when it won't.

A woman in Missouri recently filed a lawsuit against the private company behind the Rock 'n' Roll Marathon series, claiming that its use of unpaid volunteers on race day violates the Fair Labor Standards Act, which forbids employees from volunteering for private, for-profit employers.

The lawsuit calls it "the veneer of community service" and accuses the company of "exploiting a volunteer labor force to avoid paying for necessary labor."

Could the same suit befall Ironman?

And consider this: Is our Ironman volunteerism diverting time and energy from other tiny, shoestring nonprofits that would drool over even just 40 weekend volunteers?

If we give 12 hours to Ironman, are we then less likely to show up to volunteer next weekend at the soup kitchen? Will we feel less compelled to donate our time, energy or money -- well, I already volunteered at Ironman, I'd say -- to other we-really-are-a-charity charities?

Did Ironman drain our city of its volunteer base just as it fatigues athletes on race day?

"If each of those volunteers had donated just $1 to MetMin, that sure would have been a big help to the growing number of folks among us who need help with their disproportionately heavy loads," said Becky Whelchel, of our city's Metropolitan Ministries.

Look, I'm not dogging the race. It's a heart-throbbing experience, and if it takes a global corporation to create that, so be it.

Nor is this any guilt trip on the volunteers or our city's volunteer spirit. Holy hamstrings, anything but.

But the 2015 Ironman Chattanooga is already sold out.

The triathletes know what they're getting into.

But do the rest of us?

Contact David Cook at dcook@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter at DavidCookTFP.

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