The small and insular world of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race was exploding Wednesday amid suggestions a saboteur might have been stalking the Nome finish line this March.
There was no evidence to support such speculation, but the Facebook page of Seavey’s Ididaride Sled Dog Tours – a business owned by three-time and defending champ Mitch Seavey – opened the discussion Tuesday night with a post suggesting that the race’s first publicly revealed doping case was probably due to sabotage.
Proclaiming it “unlikely” a competitor would dope his or her dogs to obtain a competitive advantage in the world’s most prestigious sled dog race, the post posited that “it seems more plausible an adversary of that musher or of the race itself was to blame.”
The Iditarod Trail Committee has refused to name that musher caught with several dogs juiced on tramadol, a synthetic opiate. The organization has revealed the doping happened along the trail or in a checkpoint sometime within 15 hours of when the dogs were tested in Nome.
Seavey’s post claimed “his team did not test positive.” It has, however, emerged that he might have been using a prohibited substance – methyl salicylate – for years.
It was just not the tramadol that stirred the current doping crisis. A mild pain killer, tramadol is usually used to comfort dogs and make it easier for them to rest.
Veterinarians experienced with the drug and the Iditarod said Wednesday that the White Mountain checkpoint, the race’s penultimate checkpoint, would be the likely place to use the drug. Mushers and their teams are required to take a mandatory, 8-hour stop there before making the final push to Nome.
A dose of tramadol might help the dogs rest better, one vet said, and given that tramadol clears the body faster than caffeine, a musher might be able to escape detection at the finish more than 8 hours later.
On the heels of the Seavey post Tuesday night came a Wednesday statement from “Musher X,” the invisible doper his or herownself, claiming to have been told by race officials that the doping offense was no big deal. The statement was supplied the Alaska Dispatch News, the state’s largest news organization, by musher Wade Marrs.
Marrs, the president of the Iditarod Officials Finishers Club, said the musher with the doped dogs wrote the seven-paragraph statement, although the part the newspaper quoted was strangely in the third person:
“Over the course of the next few weeks and communications with the Race Marshall, Musher X insisted they did not use or administer this substance to their team, and repeatedly offered to submit to a polygraph, and complied fully with all requests.”
The statement went on to claim that Iditarod Head Veterinarian Stu Nelson and Race Marshall Mark Nordman had assured Musher X that he or she was in the clear, and that “no further action was necessary.”
Or at least nothing further needed to be done than to amend the race rules to establish a strict liability policy so that in the future there would be no disagreement over who was responsible for doped dogs.
Most sports have such a rule. It renders the competitor responsible no matter how the drugs get into his or her body or, in this case, his or her dogs. The rule stipulates competitors will be held responsible unless they can show cause why they aren’t.
The Iditarod’s latest problems began in earnest when the reason for the rule change was noted. The Iditarod tried to wash the change through Dispatch News reporter Tegan Hanlon, who emphasized how difficult a strict liability rule could prove for mushers caught with doped dogs, but that approach didn’t work.
An uproar soon focused on the questions of who, what and where?
Eight days after the “Rule 39” press release, the Iditarod officials issued another news release “regarding the update to Rule 39 resulting from several dogs from a single musher’s team testing positive for a prohibited drug.”
The press release continued to maintain the secrecy around the “who,” and Iditarod officials continued the silence that has been their hallmark since the start of this affair. They have refused to return phone calls to answer questions, although race spokesman Chas St. George did answer some emails on Wednesday.
And in them he made it clear the doped dogs are in one of the top-20 finishing teams; the dogs were under the jurisdiction of the Iditarod in Nome until after they were drug tested; and in that time it remained the musher’s responsibility, or that of a musher’s handlers, to care for the dogs until drug testing was complete.
Despite the uproar the incident has caused, more remains unknown than known, starting with:
- Just how many ppm of tramadol was detected in the doped dogs in Nome.
- Just how many dogs were doped. Iditarod vaguely said “several.” The top Iditarod teams finished with anywhere from seven – Seavey’s son, Dallas, the 2017 runnerup and a four-time champ – to 16 in the team of Montanan Jesse Royer. She amazingly made it 1,000 miles without dropping a dog and finished fifth.
- The degree of variance between the quantity of drugs in each dog’s urine, which might indicate something other than a planned effort to dope.
- The name and finishing position of the musher.
- And what explanation the musher offered, if any, after being informed of the doping positive.
The ADN story hints that Musher X thought a deal had been cut with the Iditarod, saying the musher was assured “‘the issue was over, no further action was necessary, and that measures were being taken to increase security of the food drops, checkpoints, and the Nome dog yard.’
“But last week, the Iditarod Trail Committee board of directors referenced the positive drug test when it announced revisions to the race rules.”
Musher X went on to blame the Iditarod for all the fallout that has come since. The Iditarod, the invisible accuser charged, had implicated all top-20 teams. And the Iditarod drug-test procedures, the unnamed musher added, were “deeply flawed” and unfair.
The musher claimed there was no test on a B sample to confirm the first test, and the ADN quoted the invisible, unnamed musher saying that since “the investigation cleared the musher in question, no musher should be considered guilty of anything, and any speculation is strictly conjecture.”
None of which is likely to stop speculation that only seems to be growing.