By TERRY MADDAFORD



Taupo's future as the home of the New Zealand ironman triathlon championship is assured, after management rights were handed over in a surprise decision.



Air New Zealand, licensed event manager for 17 years, will continue a major role as the "official carrier," but ownership is now with International Management Group (New Zealand), which has managed the event for Air New Zealand since it started.



IMG manages ironman championships in Australia, Korea and Japan and has signed a five-year contract with the World Triathlon Corporation.

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Planning for the Taupo event next March has started and will pick up this week, with full details being released at Ironman Australia.



"We prompted the move to Taupo after 14 years in Auckland," IMG managing director Paul Gleeson said yesterday. "As long as we are involved with Ironman New Zealand, we want to work with Taupo."



This year's race had 950 entries and about 900 starters, and the organisers want 1000 entries.



While not the biggest in the world, the New Zealand race attracts the largest percentage of international competitors.



WTC boss Lew Friedland has welcomed the move.



"I was impressed with the venue and the race when I visited last year," Friedland said. "To have the world's largest sports marketing company associated with four of our events in the Pacific Rim is a real endorsement for the global attraction of the Ironman."



Destination Lake Taupo events marketing manager Brent Pirie also welcomed the news, saying: "The town will be extremely happy. Planning starts now and we will be looking to be locked in for five years."