Update: This story was updated to include Joar Leifseth Ulsom’s statement that he didn’t dope his dogs or any others.
Yes, things are getting worse.
Iditarod doping became the talk of ESPN today. ESPN, for those who don’t watch television, is one of the country’s top – if not the top – sports-only network. More than 90 million U.S. cable viewers have the network wired into their TVs.
Iditarod organizers would kill to have the network actually cover the 1,000-mile Last Great Race from Willow to Nome. Instead, they got pretty much the opposite.
The Iditarod race and its simmering doping controversy popped up this morning as one of the “underreported stories of the week” on “Outside the Lines,” a show now drawing as many viewers as ESPSN’s “NFL Live,” according to ratings.
The Iditarod takeaway from the show?
“There’s no honor among mushers.”
“What’s going on?”
And there you have it.
The obvious end result of the business run by three-time and defending champ Mitch Seavey of Sterling taking to Facebook to declare it “unlikely” a mysterious “Musher X” doped, and thus “it seems more plausible an adversary of that musher or of the race itself was to blame.”
Clearly, the national media skipped right past the adversary “of the race itself” speculation and grabbed onto “an adversary of that musher,” and then narrowed the field to musher-on-musher sabotage.
This is close to “fake news.” It is also predictable given the way the news has come to work.
As to who the potential adversaries “of that musher” might be, if such enemies exist, it’s hard to even guess without knowing which team among the top-20 tested positive for tramadol, a synthetic opioid.
Iditarod continues to refuse to release the name. It’s “confidential,” ESPN reported.
A bunch of teams, however, would appear largely adversary free.
It’s hard, if not impossible, to find anyone who has an unkind word to say about Ramey Smyth from Willow, the 12th place finisher who some have called too nice to win, or three-time runner up Aliy Zirkle from Two Rivers, who finished eighth this year, or 56-year-old Ralph Johannessen from Norway, the 16th place finisher who hasn’t really been around the Iditarod long enough for anyone to develop any resentments.
There might be some less than cuddly feelings toward those like Jeff King from Denali, who some think just a little too cocky, but the resentments are relatively minor. Not to mention that a reasonable person has to wonder what the point would be in the aging King doping his dogs or someone else sabotaging them on the way to an 11th place finish.
The same might be said for any team outside the top-10, maybe even the top-5. The Iditarod prize money falls of fast from the $71,250 Seavey collected for winning the race to the $27,503 King pocketed.
Just for the sake of argument, let’s say someone in the King camp tried to sabotage someone in front of their musher to get “Musher X” disqualified so King could move up in the standings. King’s jump to 10th would net him only $1,995.
That’s not a very big incentive for the risky undertaking of sabotage.
On top of which, the Iditarod profit isn’t in the purse. It’s in the winning and the marketing value of being an Iditarod champ – see “Husky Homestead, a Denali Destination Where Dogs Are King” as in Jeff King, four-time Iditarod champ or “Seavey’s Iditarod Racing, Tours – Mitch Seavey 2017 Iditarod Champion.”
So if someone was going to sabotage a musher in this race, it would most likely be Seavey, who had a comfortable lead of more than an hour and a half at White Mountain, the penultimate checkpoint, and a strong team with 12 dogs remaining.
Mushers who reach White Mountain with a good speed into the checkpoint, which Seavey had; a big number of dogs, which Seavey had; and a lead of over an hour, which Seavey had; win the Iditarod.
That’s just the way it works.
So Seavey was a lock. The only way to stop him would have been sabotage, but he’s on record as saying the positive doping test wasn’t his team. If you believe him, and there’s no reason not to, count his team out as the one with doped dogs.
And it doesn’t make any sense for the winner to sabotage a team behind. So consider Seavey the only one in the clear at the moment.
Behind him, maybe somebody could make an argument for sabotage to some other team to make more money, but it’s not a particularly strong argument. If Nic Petit of Girdwood sabotaged second-place finisher Dallas Seavey from Willow, Mitch’s son and a four-time champ, Petit could have earned nearly $5,000 more by moving up in the standings.
Only 13 minutes behind the younger Seavey in White Mountain, Petit also had an incentive to dope his own dogs. A better rest in White Mountain where a mandatory 8-hour stop is required might have given them a chance to catch Dallas.
Petit is easily reached in Girdwood, a ski community just south of Alaska’s largest city. Asked first if he was the doper, he said “f— no.” Asked if he had sabotaged anyone else’s team, he said “f— no.”
And he expressed faith in his fellow competitors.
“I don’t think a competitor would have done anything like that,” he added.
The incentive for doping or sabotage late in the Iditarod race would appear low given that there just isn’t that much money involved at that point. Nobody stands to gain much either in cash or prestige from finishing fifth instead of sixth or 11th instead of 12th.
Fourth-place finisher Joar Leifseth Ulsom from Norway stood to make $5,628 by moving up from fourth to third. He messaged on Facebook that the doped dogs were not his,and “and I certainly didn’t dope any (other) dogs.”
Montana’s Jessie Royer would have made only $4,134 by moving from fifth to fourth. She is back home in Montana guiding elk hunters, but her mom returned a call. Mom couldn’t see her daughter sabotaging anyone else’s team, and there is no way Royer’s team was the one doped, she said.
The family hadn’t even heard about the Alaska doping case until it hit national news yesterday, mom said.
Wade Marrs from Willow is in the sweet spot in the strange Iditarod purse structure. A jump from six to fifth would have netted him $6,910. He has not responded to a phone message.
Would an Iditarod musher, or an Iditarod musher’s kennel take the risks of sabotaging another musher for a payout of $7,000 or less, probably far less? That’s the question ESPN has posed with its observation of “no honor among mushers.”
Below sixth place, the differences between finishing positions shrink to a matter of a few thousand dollars to a few hundred dollars. The purse breakdown is here: http://iditarod.com/race/2017/
There was a time when honor among mushers was a given on the Iditarod Trail. There was a day when five-time champ Rick Swenson from Central Alaska was a man sometimes loathed for his arrogance, not to mention his winning ways.
But even competitors who hated Swenson begrudgingly admitted that if they got into trouble anywhere along the trail, Swenson was the guy they’d most want to show up to help out.
There was that kind of respect. It appears now to have faded badly.
Today? Well the charges filed against Jason Mackey accusing him of stealing another musher’s dog kennels do make one wonder.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported the Jason Mackey theft. He allegedly stole dog kennels.