Hard to believe, but the most honest people in American sport are all a dither about fears modern-day communications might lead to cheating in Alaska’s most famous sports competition.
Yes, we’re talking mushers and the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.
“I am so concerned that this is going to create a huge atmosphere of doubt and speculation about mushers’ integrity,” the Alaska Dispatch News reported reigning Iditarod champion Dallas Seavey of Willow warning the Iditarod board on Friday.
Why? No group of competitors in sport have a better reputation for playing by the rules than Iditarod mushers.
If you’re skeptical about that claim, consider just this one fact:
Since the Iditarod began testing dogs for performance enhancing drugs in the 1980s, not a single musher has been sanctioned or disqualified for running a doped athlete.
Think about that, what other sport – major or minor – has gone more than 30 years without a doped athlete popping up?
Oh, wait. There was Scott Stalling suspended for taking DHEA, an anabolic, last year; and before him Doug Barron and Bhavik Patel and, of course, Vijay Singh, who admitted to using a PED only to escape any penalty after the PGA discovered it was a drug for which there was no test.
Tennis? We can start and end with former world number-one Maria Sharapova.
Track and field? Let’s not go there. Cycling? Oh boy.
NFL, Major League Baseball, soccer, swimming, sking? Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes.
Good lord, there are even drug cheats in cricket.
Better living through chemistry
PEDs had to have been a serious temptation for someone in Iditarod over all these years. There isn’t another sport out there where PEDs haven’t popped up. There’s a simple reason; they work.
More than 25 years ago, shortly after Olympic gold medalist Ben Johnson was caught using PEDs and lost his medal, I wrote this for the then Anchorage Daily News:
“Nearly all drugs are banned from use in (sled dog) competition, but no one denies that drugs are used in training. Usually this is done to ease the pain of injured dogs or speed healing after injuries.
“Whether the sort of drugs used by Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson could be illegally used to create stronger, faster sled dogs is uncertain, but at least one veterinarian says that is exactly what would happen.
“R.W. VanPelt, a Fairbanks vet who works with a number of mushers, has also treated racing greyhounds and race horses in the Lower 48. He said the performance of both species is enhanced by steroids.
“‘They’d certainly make a difference (with sled dogs),’ he said. ‘It would enhance their performance. It obviously would.'”
At the time, no one had ever been banned for doping dogs though there was a lot of talk about drugs. Nenana musher, Jerry Riley, an Iditarod champ, blamed the 1981 race deaths of two of his dogs on steroids. Vets said heat stroke killed the dogs, but Riley blamed steroids given them by a musher who loaned him the animals.
There is the possibility both the vets and Riley were right. There are any number of drugs known to heighten the danger of heat stroke. Veterinarians associated with sled-dog racing in Alaska at the time publicly expressed doubt about the use of PEDs, but privately some said something else.
VanPelt was one of the few willing to admit he has been approached by people interested in using drugs to build stronger, faster dogs. Others admitted only to suspicions. But most recognized the potential, the very big potential.
And yet, despite the very same attractions that made a skinny, Texas cyclist named Lance Armstrong rich and famous until he pissed off a fallen Mennonite cyclist named Floyd Landis and was stripped of seven Tour de France titles, Iditarod mushers have apparently resisted the call of the dark side.
Even though the drugs have gotten better over the years and anyone at all familiar with endurance sports has at least heard about “micro-dosing,” the Iditarod remains clean.
Iditarod mushers have somehow avoided the temptation of the drugs that have tainted every other sport. So now the thought is that in the middle of next year’s Iditarod, they won’t be able to avoid the temptation to illegally call home and ask for advice on race strategy.
OK. Let’s accept that. Let’s buy the idea that they might be more easily swayed by the satellite phone than the PED. Then let’s assume the absolute worst that can happen: a musher in touch with a team of well-rested coaches far from the front line who can monitor weather and other dog drivers to come up with the best strategy for covering the 1,000 miles of wilderness trail from Willow to Nome in the fastest time.
There’s an easy way to fix that problem. Embrace it. Tell mushers to take their phones or texting devices and do whatever they want.
If everyone is quote-unquote “cheating,” nobody is cheating. The playing field is level.
That simple reality makes this whole debate about communication nothing but strange. Better communications are more valuable to the little people than to the protesting power players like Seavey who’ve built their own little intel networks along the trail. They have access to trail reports and advice others don’t. Better communication would take away that advantage.
It’s not hard to understand why the race-dominating players are upset. They might be spinning this as a threat to the character of the race, but it’s more a threat to what they’ve built over the years.
Most people in their shoes would be doing exactly what they are doing to try to maintain an existing system they’ve learned to play well. Change always presents new problems. Better communication on the trail would present new problems.
If you believe mushers wouldn’t follow a rule saying they are to avoid using the phone or text to obtain race advice.
If you believe the non-results of decades of drug testing , it’s clear this shouldn’t be a problem; if you simply ask Iditarod mushers nicely to do something, you will get the desired result.
And if you don’t believe that a legitimate doping program can go on for decades without catching at least one cheater, well, then you might already think the Idiatrod has bigger problems than some musher chatting on the phone or texting while dog driving.