Commentary

Last Great Mess

Iditarod_finish_line

The Iditarod finish line in Nome/Wikimedia Commons

When the guilty go unnamed, everyone becomes guilty, and so it is the mushers in Alaska’s biggest sporting event have become a bunch of dopers.

Thank the Iditarod Trail Committee, which this week revealed it had discovered a team of doped dogs and then tried to cover up everything else about the case. 

Apparently the Iditarod’s board of directors never got the memo outlining how a cover up invariably creates more problems than it solves. If the board had, it would have been straightforward – as are the governing bodies of many other sports organizations – in announcing there had been a doping positive; this is who was involved; and here is what is being done about it.

The U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) deals with this sad issue regularly. Here is how it handled a doping violation and penalties at the end of August:

“USADA announced today that Kayle LeoGrande, of Upland, Calif., an athlete in the sport of cycling, has received an eight-year sanction for his second anti-doping rule violation after testing positive for seven prohibited substances.”

LeoGrande had ingested a cocktail of performance enhancing drugs, some of which – RAD 140, LGD 4033 – might be useful in increasing lean muscle mass in Iditarod dogs, and another of which – GW1516 (Endurobol) – might provide a big endurance boost for the dogs.

Mice given GW1516 were able to run twice as far before exhaustion as undoped mice, reports Cycling Tips. Experiments with the drug began with hopes of finding the effects of “exercise in a pill,” but the tests were dropped when the drug was linked to a long list of cancers.

The World Anti-Doping Administration (WADA) later took the unusual step of warning athletes the drugs is dangerous, but cancer for dogs, which have short lifespans, isn’t nearly as worrisome as for humans, who have long lifespans. And it appears you can still buy GW1516 online. 

What drug?

The Iditarod hasn’t told anyone what drug it found. It barely told anyone there was a positive test. It chose to back into this first-ever doping positive with a press release announcing the race had “revised Rule 39, pertaining to canine drug use.

“The revised rule has been put in place because several dogs in a single musher’s team in the 2017 Race tested positive for a prohibited substance,” the race said in a Monday press release. “In consultation with legal counsel, the Board of Directors determined that the ITC would likely not be able to prove intent.”

Not one dog, mind you, but “several dogs.”

Hint, hint: Iditarod might have caught a budding Lance Armstrong with a U.S. Postal Service Pro Cycling Team in its midst.

Hints are all anyone got here, however. The Iditarod has proven woefully short on facts.

Iditarod spokesman Chas St. George, whose name and phone number are at the bottom of the press release, has not returned messages left on his recorder all week. Veterinarian A. Morrie Craig of Oregon State University, who oversees the testing of dog urine for drugs, did answer an email asking for specifics.

“Am overseas. Will not be home till oct 15,” it said.

The information vacuum has ignited the predictable questions and speculation, making for something of a game of Iditarod Jeopardy sans Alec Treback to provide the correct answer:

Who was the musher caught doping in the 2017 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race?

What was the drug used by a musher trying to cheat in the 2017 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race?

Pick a name, any name. Toss out a drug, any drug.

The honorable thing here would be for the guilty party to identify him or herself and the drugs in question to remove the suspicions cast on everyone.  Don’t expect that to happen no matter how commendable it would be if it did.

And maybe this was a simple accident. Hopefully this could be a simple accident. There is always that possibility.

Contamination?

A lot of mushers have taken to giving their dogs supplements in recent years. Among these mushers are three-time and defending champ Mitch Seavey from Sterling. In a testimonial for Young Living Essential Oils, he said, “one of his favorite oils is Melaleuca Alternifolia, commonly called tea tree oil.”

He uses it on the dogs’ feet to prevent cracks and splits, and uses “Wintergreen to help soothe aching muscles to Geranium to help calm anxious dogs,.Young Living products are key to his dogs’ success,” according to the Young Living website. 

Supplement contamination has regularly spelled trouble for athletes in a variety of other sports. Some authorities on doping have referred to the use of supplements as playing “Russian roulette.”

And the defending Iditarod champ isn’t the only one using supplements. His son, four-time champ Dallas, both uses and distributes supplements from Dynamite Specialty Products.

“The dogs are fed salmon, beef, chicken, liver, fat, and kibble. Of course, our dogs diets also include Dynamite supplements to help their digestive systems work efficiently and to support their immune systems,” Dallas says in a website testimonial.  “In the kennel and on the trail, we have been able to get an edge on the competition through nutritional support and injury/illness treatment and prevention from the products made by Dynamite.”

There has been no indication either Young Living or Dynamite supplements are involved in the Iditarod doping case, but supplements have popped up again and again as responsible for positive tests in human athletes.

Ultimate Fighting Championship light heavyweight champion Jon Jones in August blamed his positive drug test on a supplement.

If the Iditarod doping was accidental, supplements would be the prime suspect in any accident. But given that the Iditarod is saying nothing, the  drug in question here could just as easily be any number of high-power PEDs capable of helping dogs run longer or faster, or they could be some sort of pain killer intended to keep injured dogs running.

Some history

Though the Iditarod’s handling of the case would make it appear the guilty party could be any musher who ran the race this March, the reality is almost certainly otherwise. It is hugely unlikely, almost beyond belief in fact, that anyone from  back of the Iditarod pack is involved in this scandal. Were it a BOPer, as they are called, the Iditarod would surely have penalized the offender and been done with this.

A judge in the case of Robert Loveman, a BOP musher who sued the race after being booted from the trail as non-competitive, previously ruled the ITC has the right to run the race anyway it wants. According to that ruling, the Iditarod doesn’t even have to follow its own rules.

All of which makes a line in the skimpy Iditarod press release jump out for knowledgeable observers:  “The way the rule was previously written, it could have been interpreted to require the ITC to have proof of intent.”

The key words there are “could have been.” When dealing with BOPers, the history of past practice with any “coulds” has been to say, “You’re out. If you don’t like it, go ahead and sue us.”

That the Iditarod got its legal counsel involved in this case and changed the rule instead of simply penalizing the musher involved would appear to indicate there were concerns about someone bringing serious legal action and/or a public ruckus. The number of mushers with the financial resources and/or celebrity to do that are few.

So, if you’re playing “guess the doper,” it’s probably a good bet to figure it’s someone in the top-20 for sure, and probably the top-10 this year. These also happen to be the people with the greatest incentive to dope – so as to finish in the prize money – and they are the people whose dogs get an extra going over at the finish line in Nome, which might help explain how the Iditarod found “several dogs” that had been doped.

And you can surely bet the doping wasn’t with aspirin or Rimadyl (the Tylenol of the dog world), or the Iditarod would have said so. Such a violation would appear pretty minor.

The refusal of Iditarod to name the drug or drugs coupled to the reference to several dogs has led most of those familiar with doping in endurance sports to the believe that what the Iditarod found was a PED.

Sabotage!

And if all of this doesn’t look bad enough for The Last Great Race, along comes Mitch Seavey in the wake of a public relations disaster to make things worse.

Seavey expressed his displeasure with the new, strict liability rule stipulating that Iditarod mushers caught with doped dogs are, like athletes in endurance sports, guilty unless they can prove themselves innocent.

Seavey’s objection to the ruleis understandable. Strict liability rules puts athletes in a tough spot. But Seavey’s specific reasons for concern created a new problem.

“I am strongly supportive and I appreciate the board for trying to enforce the drug dog policy, but I think it’s a mistake to leave the mushers in a place where they can be sabotaged and have no recourse,” he told the Alaska Dispatch News’ Tegan Hanlon.

Sabotaged? Really? Has it come to this?

Seavey thinks the Idiatrod has become so cutthroat that someone would sabotage a musher’s race by contaminating dog food with illegal drugs? Who would this saboteur be?  Another musher? Fans of another musher? An animal rights activist wanting to cast the race in a bad light?

And wouldn’t it be easier to just slip the dogs a good dose of Dulcolax to give them a serious case of the runs and slow them down? Why depend on contaminated food that requires a drug test to detect that the dogs have been doped? Especially given the Iditarod’s historically lax doping controls.

It isn’t like the Iditarod is known for its stringent drug testing. Prior to this, it hadn’t caught anyone (or at least it hadn’t revealed it had caught anyone), and given the prevalence of doping products in horse racing, greyhound racing, running and cycling, one has to be pretty  naive to believe no one has experimented with doping in sled dogs or stumbled into a doping problem with contaminated supplements.

Oh wait, someone was caught using drugs in sled dogs. Poland’s Igor Tracz was found to have a doped dog at an International Federation of Sleddog Sports-sanctioned race in France three years ago. According to the IFSS website, he was asked to give back a silver medal and banned from racing for six months, which would seem to have given the Iditarod a perfect out.

If the Iditarod doping was minor or accidental, say with supplements, tell the musher to give back the prize money, ban them for six months (which wouldn’t interfere with their racing in Iditarod 2018), and say you’re just following along with protocols established by the IFSS.

Instead, though, Iditarod has decided to create yet another Iditarod guessing game and spark a discussion about sabotage along the Iditarod Trail. One can only imagine Fern Levitt, the director of the anti-Iditarod movie “Sled Dogs,” must be ecstatic.

If there are potential saboteurs on the loose in Alaska, as Seavey suggests, how can the dogs ever be safe on the trail either from said saboteurs or from mushers themselves? Afterall, if someone is willing to sabotage another team to win, what might they do to their own dogs to try make them winners?

Suggestions of how a doping violation could have been or might be caused by sabotage is exactly what the Iditarod doesn’t need when Levitt is crisscrossing the country to show her film at festivals and leave viewers with a clearly negative review of what goes on in the north.

“Based on the depth of your love for animals, ‘Sled Dogs’ may prove one of the more disturbing documentaries you’ll ever see – if you can endure it,” Gary Goldstein wrote in an LA Times review of the movie published on Oct. 5, only eight days ago. “This gripping exposé of the dark side of the commercial dog sledding industry, particularly as it pertains to Alaska’s annual Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, is a horrifying heartbreaker.”

There’s more, and it only gets worse, as does the Iditarod’s handling of its various public relations problems. From a PR standpoint, here is what the ITC has done in this case:

A.) Protected a doper. B.) Made it look like any musher could be a doper. C.) Opened the door for the suggestion dogs along the Iditarod Trail could be harmed by saboteurs. It’s the perfectly wrong trifecta.

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11 replies »

  1. One would have to be a complete idiot to think sled dogs have genetically evolved into supernatural endurance athletes, able to cover the 1000 mile Iditarod race course in merely eight days, without the use of performance enhancing drugs.

    The Iditarod’s anti-doping rules always were and still are a total joke, the main reasons being that there are no provisions for year round, out of season testing and the policy lacks definitive consequences for positive results. Any sophisticated doping program could easily produce a negative result during the two week racing window that samples may be taken from the dogs. And as soon as a dog is pulled from the race it can be given a cocktail of prohibited substances, without consequence, so long as the dog can test clean the following year.

    This is not the policy of the IFSS, whose anti-doping policies are mirrored after the World Anti-Doping Agency and mandate year round, random testing of racing dogs.

    Instead the ITC has created another pathetic cover up, a tactic the organization has used for decades in an effort to disguise dog abuse and protect their phony image. If the Iditarod wanted to catch dopers, they certainly would have done so before this. And if they wanted to discourage doping in the future, they would identify the dogs and the musher, the substance(s) detected, and give the accused an opportunity to present their defense.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I’m not taking sides on this at the moment becausea I truly believe there is not enough information to do so. In my opinion, authors of articles like this get upset when they don’t get immediate answers. Seems the way the world goes.

    I do believe the ITC should be forthright and give a full explanation / disclosure of what they have determined happened, is going to happen going forward once they believe they have sufficient, credible information to do so.

    I feel it is immature and irresponsible reporting for an author to imply the things he has in this, even if it is just an opinon piece.

    To ITC i would say, be thorough and be transparent, do so as quickly but as responsibly as possible .

    I hope if it is an accidental doping we can determine how it happened, if not, then the parties involved need to be punished and the chips need to fall where they do.

    Like

    • did you read the article, Tim? the issue here is, as you point out, transparency.the ITC has determined what happened six months ago, and they have announced what is going to happen going forward. they’re going to rewrite the rule. the issue unresolved is that they have not said what drug was involved or in whose team it was detected, and they have indicated they have no intention of saying. that decision makes all mushers potentially guilty because it could be any of them. i don’t like to see innocent people suspected of things they didn’t do because of the failure of those in authority to do their job. i don’t know that i’m upset, but i’m certainly disappointed.

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  3. Wintergreen is a natural salicylate. Aspirin is a salicylate. Wintergreen will show in a blood screen for salicylate. Fun fact: If you drink a bottle of regular Listerine, you’ll get drunk. If you drink wintergreen flavored Listerine you’ll get salicylate poisoning as well. Even those who resort to drinking Listerine know to avoid the blue stuff.

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  4. As Craig points out, sabotage works both ways. It is far more easier and effective to poison a dog to decrease performance than to taint a dog’s urine and hair molecules and hope for a random drug test to disqualify the competition. If sabotage is a realistic concern for drug testing then it always has been for dog poisoning. If the competitive dog racing community has always been concerned that fellow musher might have someone poison their competitors dogs, Houston we have a problem. Next thing you know we will be hearing that handlers might be being paid to be honey traps. That check in coffee and donuts are being laced with sleeping medicine. Or more subtle-anyone remember the year Dallas beat Zirkle because she stopped in for a donut? I bet someone knew she liked donuts….. ah the great donut sabotage trick….an oldie but a goodie

    Liked by 1 person

  5. This is a paragraph off of the “World Anti Doping Association” website, regarding supplement use among athletes…

    Extreme caution is recommended regarding supplement use.

    The use of dietary supplements by athletes is a concern because in many countries the manufacturing and labeling of supplements may not follow strict rules, which may lead to a supplement containing an undeclared substance that is prohibited under anti-doping regulations. A significant number of positive tests have been attributed to the misuse of supplements and taking a poorly labeled dietary supplement is not an adequate defense in a doping hearing.

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  6. Sabotage is a realistic concern. In the history of cycling there are some significant incidents of riders unknowingly ingesting illegal drugs.

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