With Dallas Seavey of Willow, the four-time champion of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, now pushing to overthrow the board of the non-profit organization that runs Alaska’s Last Great Race, one has to ask how what started with an effort to protect the 30-year-old star of the race from doping allegations ended up here.
But to get to the end, you have to start at a beginning with the few essential facts on which Seavey and Iditarod agree:
Seavey’s dogs were doped with tramadol, a synthetic opioid and pain-killer. Six months passed from the end of the race until October 9 during which intermittent discussions took place between Seavey and the Iditarod to try to determine how the dogs might have ingested tramadol. It was never wholly determined exactly where or when the drugs were administered or by whom.
The agreement pretty much ends there.
Seavey says he didn’t do it. The Iditarod has stopped short of saying he did, but does say he is responsible for his team, and the race admits to doubts it could meet the legal standard of proving Seavey willfully doped the dogs.
Proving doping beyond a reasonable doubt – the high level of proof required in a U.S. court of law – is almost impossible unless video exists of the doper filling a syringe and injecting it into dogs, and prosecutors have the container from which the dope was taken and the syringe to prove both contained the dope.
This is why every sport in the world enforces doping with a “strict liability rule.” The International Federation for Sleddog Sports, which is associated with the World Anti-Doping Association (WADA) has incorporated this rule.
“As consistently confirmed by the CAS (Court of Arbitration for Sport), the strict liability rule for the finding of a prohibited substance in an athlete’s specimen, with a possibility that sanctions may be modified based on specified criteria, provides a reasonable balance between effective anti-doping enforcement for the benefit of all clean athletes and fairness in the exceptional circumstance where a prohibited substance entered an athlete’s system through no fault or negligence on the athlete’s part,” WADA says.
The Iditarod has avoided IFSS affiliation. The Anchorage Fur Rendezvous Open World Championships sled-dog Race – a three-stage, sprint race around the streets of the state’s largest city and once the biggest event in Alaska sled dog racing – is IFSS affiliated.
“It is each athlete’s personal duty to ensure that no prohibited substance enters his or her dog’s body. Athletes are responsible for any prohibited substance or its metabolites or markers found to be present in their dog’s samples. Accordingly, it is not necessary that intent, fault, negligence or knowing use on the athlete’s part be demonstrated in order to establish an anti-doping rule violation….”
After the Seavey doping positive and months and months of on-and-off discussions with Seavey, the Iditarod decided to resolve any problems with doping debates going forward by rewriting its doping rule to mimic that of the IFSS.
And so was laid the groundwork for World War Seavey, though no one knew it at the time.
A widening gulf
Seavey and the Iditarod disagree on almost everything that came from the moment the new rule was proposed on Oct. 9 to now.
Seavey version: “Because they couldn’t prove it, they just decided not to go any deeper. which means that they’re going to imply that I’m guilty. They released this information along with the rule change that implied that I was guilty but that they couldn’t make it stick in a legal court.”
Iditarod version: “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. In consultation with legal counsel, the Board of Directors determined that the ITC would likely not be able to prove intent.” The information released did not mention Seavey, and Iditarod officials and board members contacted by craigmedred.news and other journalists refused to say which musher was involved.
The failure to name names, or the drug, or where and when the incident happened on the trail caused an uproar. Iditarod mushers and fans all demanded to know more, and on Oct. 17, the Iditarod issued a second press statement giving them some of what they wanted.
Iditarod version: “The following is additional information related to the Iditarod Trail Committee press release distributed Oct. 9, regarding the update to Rule 39 resulting from several dogs from a single musher’s team testing positive for a prohibited drug. The prohibited drug found in the dogs was tramadol.
“Based on the test results, it was estimated that the drug could have been administered
somewhere between fifteen hours prior to, and up until the time the team was tested in Nome. Urine samples were collected from the team for testing six hours after finishing the race.” Again the musher was not named.
Seavey version: “Then they released more information following that (Oct. 9 release) that implied strongly that they believed I was guilty, but weren’t going to do anything about it.”
The day after that press release, Wade Marrs – a Seavey friend and neighbor in Willow and the reigning president of the Iditarod Official Finishers Club – delivered a seven paragraph statement to the Alaska Dispatch News, the states largest news organization, from a mysterious “Musher X,” the man at the center of the controversy.
Written strangely in the third person, it questioned the drug testing protocols and made this claim:
“Accordingly, Musher X was determined unlikely to have administered a drug to their own dogs. Musher X was led to believe that the Head Veterinarian and Race Marshall suspected either an accident or possibly foul play in the Nome dog lot or food bags. They assured Musher X 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.”
Race spokesman Chas St. George refused to comment on the Musher X statement, dodging with the claim he hadn’t read it. The response was in keeping with the information-containment policy Iditarod had been operating under since the Oct. 9 announcement about a “rule change.”
But the accusations against Race Marshal Mark Nordman and Head Vet Stu Nelson finally stirred an Iditarod reaction.
On Oct. 22, the Iditarod sent a statement to the Official Finishers Club outlining the drug-control testing procedures and contesting Musher X’s claim.
Iditarod version: “ITC never made a determination that it was unlikely Musher X (later identified as Seavey) administered the drug in question. ITC decided, as it stated in its press release dated October 9, 2017, that Rule 39 as previously written could have been interpreted to require the ITC to have proof of intent. The ITC decided that it was not internally satisfied that it could prove intent in this case and modified Rule 39 instead to adopt a strict liability standard. Based upon ITC’s research, that is virtually the universal standard in other animal sporting events.”
The statement also offered an explanation for a 6-hour delay in drug testing after the race finish – a delay that had become the subject of much debate:
“Prior to the 2017 Race, Musher X requested a delay in the collection of the urine
samples by the ITC drug testing team after the finish of the Race, explaining that there
were other tests that were already ordered by Musher X and that Musher X wanted to
make sure the dogs were sufficiently rested for both the urine draw and the additional
The reference to blood tests sent some other mushers and John Schandelmeier, a former winner of the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race and a columnist for the Dispatch News, scrambling.
“Who was scheduled to take another blood draw at the end of the race, this test ordered in Dec.?” he emailed the next day. “So which of the top 20 had their initial blood work done that far back?
“I’m having trouble finding who volunteered for those Dec. tests. ITC won’t tell me.”
Craigmedred.news couldn’t get an answer to that question either. It was among many questions the Iditarod was refusing to answer.
Seavey version: “A couple days ago they (Iditarod) sent a letter to IOFC (Finishers Club), pretty much denying everything I said, across the board, saying this is all lies, don’t believe a word. But if you go back to what I think is the real cause of this: the purpose of leaking my name, which the letter that they did to the IOFC directly tied me to it. While over here they are saying, we’re not going to release the name, on the other hand they’re putting out enough information. They’re putting it out there, and the purpose in my opinion was to discredit me within the mushers to make me be quiet. Right? They don’t want anymore petitions coming from me. They don’t want any more arguments to the board coming from me.”
Reporters might eventually have discovered Seavey’s name, but while they were digging, the Finishers Club demanded Iditarod release the name of the musher involved. Among those signing on in support of the demand was Seavey’s father, Mitch, the defending Iditarod champion and the first to publicly suggest the doping might have been caused by “sabotage,” a theme later picked up by his son Dallas.
On Oct. 23, Iditarod finally gave up the name.
Iditarod version: “Because of the level of unhealthy speculation involved in this matter, ITC has now decided to disclose the name of the musher involved. The musher is Dallas Seavey, the drug involved was tramadol (a pain reliever), and the tests were conducted in Nome after Seavey’s completion of the race. The material facts which Seavey presented to the ITC during its investigation included, but were not limited to: statements denying that he had administered that drug to any of his dogs; that it would have been irrational for him to do so at that stage of the race because he knew he would be subjected to mandatory testing in Nome as well as a panel of voluntary tests he had agreed to participate in relating the canine recovery rates; and that Tramadol would not, in his opinion, have given him a competitive advantage. Under those circumstances, the ITC decided that rather than attempting to enforce a potentially ambiguous rule under uncertain circumstances, that it would be best for all interests involved – including the mushers, sponsors, fans and the general public – for it to rewrite its canine drug test rule to adopt a bright line strict liability standard.”
Those words had barely entered the tubes before Dallas was online in a youtube video, which had clearly been shot and then edited, proclaiming his innocence, attacking his accusers and suggesting sabotage either on the part of his competitors, animal-rights groups, or possibly even members of the Iditarod family of officials, volunteers andvets.
Since then, a lot of discussion has focused on possible saboteurs, the questionable effectiveness of tramadol as an Iditarod doping drug, and vague issues of fairness that go far beyond a doping case involving someone who has suffered no harm other than the Iditarod saying his dogs were doped.
Dallas was not disqualified from the race. Dallas did not lose his $59,357 prize for finishing second. Dallas was not banned from future races. Dallas was not even penalized for the suggesting other mushers might have doped his dogs, although the Iditarod’s controversial gag rule prohibits mushers from engaging in “public conduct injurious to and in reckless disregard of the best interests of the race.”
Dallas has publicly called the Iditarod corrupt and tried to start a musher’s revolt against the race.
“Should there be any governing body that is beyond reproached from the governed?”he demanded in an interview with KTUU-TV. “This is not a dictatorship. This should be the group of mushers being heard and represented by their board.
“The board themselves cannot make rules that disallows their mushers, the people they govern, to disapprove of the decisions they make. That is ethically wrong.”
The posturing has served well to distract from what little is and is known about the four doped dogs in Dallas’s team.
What is actually known – beyond the name of the drug, tramadol; the name of the musher, Dallas; and where the drug test was conducted, Nome – remains limited, in large part because of the unwillingness of Iditarod to talk about what Nelson and the drug testing laboratory in Oregon believe to be the what and where.
Seavey has offered some ideas.
Dallas version I: “In Nome, after, after the finish in Nome, um, we talked to another vet that we’ve worked with in the past. And um, and yeah, our crew and that vet were working closely together because they seemed…(pause.)…down. And, um, this was, this was something, that when this whole thing came up, it was like, “Oh, now I see what was going on. They were hit with a heavy sedative.” So we had them on heavy electrolyte. We were trying to get them to bounce back. Dogs that are usually very animated and perky aren’t wanting to get up and eat. Um, something was strange. And it was a short window. We got them on the electrolytes.We got them on all this stuff, and they seemed to bounce back. It’s like, ‘OK, maybe it was just a hard race.’ But I’ve never seem them finish like that, or after the finish be like that. And that was a bit concerning.”
Dallas version II: “”I feel like this was probably an opportunistic thing where somebody was in the Nome dog yard and saw the dogs unattended. Whether that’s anti-mushing or whatever it is I don’t know. But I do know we need to have some security….I do know that after I finished the race, my team, we bedded them down. They were left unattended for 4 or 5 hours prior to the drug test. What happened in that time, I’d love to know. I’d love to see the security footage from the Nome dog yard. Since there isn’t any.”
Iditarod has cast doubt on the Nome scenario.
Iditarod version: “…Possible foul play in the Nome dog lot or food bags…was a hypothesis put forward by Musher X (Dallas Seavey). It was rejected by ITC because it was not supported by identifiable facts but only by supposition and speculation. As we are learning, that type of entertaining ‘what ifs’ can be destructive to individual mushers and the sport we all hold so dear. It should be noted that as the revised Rule 39 states that ITC will take any facts of that type of behavior very seriously and mete out firm and prompt sanctions.”
Seavey has generally stuck to version two of his sabotage story that whatever happened took place in the Nome dog yard after the dogs were left unattended. There were four other teams in the lot for the six hours Dallas was there.
That of his father, race winner Mitch, who had finished about two and a half hours earlier; that of Nicolas Petit of Girdwood, who finished only 4 1/2 minutes behind Seavey and delivered the latter’s vet book so Dallas could officially finish (the vet book is mandatory gear required at the finish line); and Norwegian Joar Liefseth Ulsom, who finished about 3 1/2 hours after Dallas.
No other teams would arrived in the six-hour window between Dallas’s test finish and the test. Both Petit and Ulsom have said they did not dope anyone’s dog. If they are to be believed, there are no competitors who could have drugged Dallas’s team.
But the Iditarod has left open the possibility the doping did not happen in Nome.
Iditarod version: “Based on the test results, it was estimated that the drug could have been administered somewhere between 15 hours prior to and up until the time the team was tested in Nome.”
The 15-hour time opens the door on the possibility the dogs were doped in White Mountain, a friendly village where mushers are required to rest their teams for 8 hours before the final push to Nome. It took Dallas 8 hours, 49 minutes to make the run from there to Nome.
Mushers, officials and reporters who’ve spent a time on the Iditarod Trail generally seem to agree it would be hard for a stranger to get to White Mountain – the journey can be made only by airplane or snowmachine – and not be noticed by someone, but it is not impossible.
Still, another musher or someone associated with the Iditarod – an official, a checker or a vet – would appear to have a better chance of doping a musher’s dogs there. The only other musher in White Mountain aside from the aforementioned finishing group was Jesse Royer from Montana. Her mother can’t imagine her doing it, but Royer herself has yet to respond to a request as to what she knows.
Dallas has, however, suggested possibilities other than Nome or White Mountain.
Seavey version: “They didn’t have a conclusion. The Iditarod did not have a position. All of this talking back and forth, the information got handed around, bumped around. There was never a panel. There was never a formal way to present evidence. Nobody was in charge of analysing those evidences. And additionally when legal told them that even if they did find that I was guilty, they couldn’t prove it or do anything. They just dropped it. They just dropped it. They didn’t try to prove my innocence.”
Iditarod apparently took offense at the idea the evidence wasn’t well analyzed.
Iditarod version: “According to Dr. (Morrie) Craig, on March 15, approximately six hours after finishing the race, a drug testing team comprised of three trained individuals took urine samples in bags from four dogs in Musher X’s (Dallas Seavey’s) team.
“A separate individual, the recorder, broke the tamper proof seals on three cups,
transferred the samples from the bags into individual cups, and placed new tamper
proof seals and identifying bar codes on those cups. One cup contained two samples
from two dogs, a common practice known as batching.
“An observer from Musher X’s (Dallas Seavey’s) kennel was present and observed the collection of the urine as well as the transfer, sealing and bar coding of each cup. A very important part of the chain of custody process is identifying the dogs by bib number and dog tag letter on each sample submission card. In this case, the batched sample submission card contained Musher X’s (Dallas Seavey’s) bib number and the dog tag letters from two dogs on one common bar code on the batched sample.
“At that point, the musher’s representative confirmed that the urine was collected, the samples were sealed, and the musher’s representative signed each sample submission card as a witness. The next step in the chain of custody involved placing the barcoded cups in a locked box and moving them to a secured freezer in Nome pending overnight air transportation to the lab. The lab which ITC utilizes is qualified and accredited by the American Association for Laboratory Accreditation (A2LA) to the ISO 17025 quality standard.
“That lab must participate in a proficiency program for quality assurance by the Association of the Official Racing Chemists. Samples are first screened by a LC/MS/MS (Liquid Chromatography Mass Spectrometry) system which allows detection of 375 different drugs. Any positives are then reconfirmed by a second LC/MS/MS analysis specific to the detected drug to obtain more robust data. The sample submission cards with the identity of the dogs and their bar code numbers remain secure with the Dr. Craig, so the lab does not even know the identity of the musher associated with each barcoded sample.”
The samples were shipped March 16. They were unsealed the next day in the lab and found positive for tramadol. Three days later, a second sample – essentially the B sample – was tested. It also game back positive.
Dallas was notified of the positive tests on April 10. He did not ask for another, according to Iditarod. Instead talks began between Dallas and the Iditarod that went on for months before they disintegrated into a very public dispute that now threatens The Last Great Race.
Craig is highly respected toxicologist with Oregon State’s College of Veterinary Medicine. He is a member of the Greyhound Hall of Fame. According to the Greyhound Hall, he pioneered the “National Greyhound Association’s drug testing program for the national meets, giving credibility to the NGA’s track stake program and auctions. He chronicled detection and clearance times of legitimate medications in greyhounds in 1995 and again in 2007.”
Craig was in 1996 named Oregon Scientist of the Year.
Tramadol has been studied in greyhounds. “Tramadol was well tolerated, and a significant increase in pain-pressure thresholds was evident 5 and 6 hours after administration,” a 2011 study reported.
Australia’s Greyhound Racing NWS says this about the drug: “It may be a useful pain
relieving medication for those On Track Veterinarians reluctant to carry controlled substances on racetracks, however it is not suitable for management of fractures or severe injury. It is extremely safe” and may be combined with other drugs.”
It has suggested a musher might use tramadol to reduce pain in dogs and keep them from limping to the finish in Nome, which would not be good for a musher’s image. Bob Sept, a former chief veterinarian for the Iditarod and one-time board president, said there are better drugs.
Sept said he just can’t believe Dallas would dope his dogs. Others said the same.
Sadly, modern sports is full of stories of people who expressed similar sentiments only to be sadly disappointed.
What to think?