Under attack from four-time Iditarod champ Dallas Seavey, who was found to have four doped dogs in his team this year, the once-fan-friendly Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race has apparently given in to the idea it has some sort of security problem.
What the race has is a doping problem – whether Seavey doped his team or someone else did it – and the first solution to that problem is simple: Treat doping controls in the Iditarod the same way they are treated in other endurance events.
Test upon arrival. After the dogs cross the finish line in Nome, take them straight to doping control.
Had Seavey’s dogs been tested immediately after the finish this year, no one would be engaged in a stupid debate about how high concentrations of tramadol in their urine might be due to “sabotage” in Nome.
And yes, it is a stupid debate if for no other reason than this:
Only a few people knew Seavey was given a six-hour grace period after the end of the race before his dogs would be tested. Those people comprise the list of Nome doping suspects.
No one else – including the phantom animal-rights activists from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which seems to have become a favored target – would bother to dope Seavey’s dogs in the 4 1/2- to 5-hour window he suggests after the race because by then the drug testing would have been done.
Over. Complete. Finished.
Or so everyone believed until weeks ago when it was revealed Seavey had been given a 6-hour grace period. Seavey had a good reason for this. He was having some private blood testing done on his dogs after the race and wanted to coordinate the urine testing with the blood sampling.
When race officials granted his request to push the urine test back to the maximum time permitted in the rules, they had no reason to even think about what a mess that decision would spawn.
Asking for problems
But then the Iditarod has long operated on the questionable assumption that dog mushers are of greater moral and ethical character than the rest of us. An Iditarod musher would never cheat, right?
Credit Seavey’s accusations that he could have been sabotaged by other mushers with at least popping that bubble. And it needed to die.
Competition brings out the best in people, and competition brings out the worst in people.
When 198 world-class athletes were polled by Sports Illustrated back in 1997 on whether they’d take a performance-enhancing drug if it was guaranteed that they’d win and not get caught, 98.5 percent said they’d take the drug.
But that wasn’t the astounding part. The astounding part was this:
More than half of those athletes said that if they had access to an undetectable drug that would guarantee them victories for five years, they’d take it even if at the end of those five years the drug killed them.
This reality of human nature is why the Iditarod needs a stronger doping-control program than it has had in the past. Seavey wants a weaker one. He says the race should “protect” mushers, and if caught with doped dogs, mushers should be considered innocent until proven guilty.
That’s a nice idea, but Seavey has well demonstrated why it doesn’t work. He already has a legion of Iditarod fans speculating about a theoretical “Saboteur X,” and Seavey wasn’t even charged with anything. The Iditarod didn’t disqualify him or take away his second-place prize money.
If a man facing no punishment can stir up a dust storm over an essentially meaningless conclusion that because his dogs were doped he was the likely doper, think of the game of shadows some musher trying to protect himself from disqualification or the loss of money might create.
As Seavey has shown, the list of possible suspects who could dope dogs is almost endless. And it’s amazing what people are willing to consider as reasonable doubt. They appear strongly prone to believe what they want to believe.
In 22 years of drug testing, the Iditarod has not reported a single dog’s urine contaminated by picking up a chemically laced treat along the trail. And now it has four positives, all in the same team, and some people going “Yeah, that’s it. It was the tramadol hidden in the dog treat.”
Tighten it up
The lack of positive tests is actually Seavey’s best argument for why he didn’t dope his dogs. As he pointed out, the top-20 teams know they will be tested in Nome. So if you dope on the last leg of the trail, it either has to be with something that will be out of the urine by Nome, or you have to be an idiot.
If you want to effectively dope, you do it before the race starts anyway. There are a number of drugs out there for building lean muscle mass and boosting endurance. Both are Idit-a-good if you want to win, and it’s guaranteed you won’t get caught.
The Iditarod does no out-of-competition testing, and aside from the Nome test, drug testing is limited during the race.
There are random tests of random dogs at random checkpoints, but the rules are pretty lax about these, saying only that “dogs are subject to the collection of urine…at the discretion of the testing veterinarian.”
The rules don’t say what happens if Musher X’s dog is on the random test list for Checkpoint Y, and Musher X announces he isn’t stopping at Checkpoint Y, grabs his straw and food and leaves. If there has been a case where a front-running musher was told to stay in the checkpoint until the vets got urine, I couldn’t find anyone who knew of it.
That should change. The test on arrival rule should be extended to all checkpoints. Mushers who have a random dog marked for drug testing at checkpoint Y should be required to produce that dog for testing immediately upon arrival at the checkpoint.
Mushers, of course, are not going to like stricter drug-testing protocols. Immediate testing in Nome is going to require they have handlers, friends or acquaintances, there to escort the designated dogs to doping control.
Stopping at a checkpoint to have a dog pee because it’s in the random draw could cost extra minutes, even tens of minutes, for those who were planning to grab food and straw and blow on through to camp out on down the trail.
So be it.
There are some fact-acting and fast-disappearing peptides and stimulants that might potentially be useful in the Iditarod. If you’re into cheating, John Romano at T-Nation offers a primer on how to get started.
If you were doping in Iditarod, blowing checkpoints to avoid possible pee tests could be a great way to avoid testing positive. And a lot of today’s dog mushers are smart people. They can figure this out. Go listen to one of the videos in which Seavey talks about the half-life of tramadol. He’s clearly done some homework either before or after the race.
He knows tramadol breaks down in the body pretty quickly. If he administered the tramadol, it’s possible his only mistake was that his dogs didn’t pee enough or soon enough. The drug may have gotten out of the blood, but stayed in the urine. He should have given the dogs a diuretic.
If someone else administered the tramadol, then Seavey has some serious enemies out there in the small Iditarod fraternity. That is always possible. He has talked about other mushers who hold grudges against him, although he hasn’t named them.
Possibly Seavey does need security. The rest of the Iditarod field?
Despite Seavey’s claims of how easy it would be to get into the drop bags that mushers send to the Iditarod checkpoints, the evidence would indicate it’s not that easy. If it were, you’ve got to believe those bags would be regularly pilfered.
There’s no telling what goodies a thief might find in them. Mushers don’t just ship dog food to the checkpoints. They ship food for themselves, batteries, gloves, extra clothing, cookware, spare headlamps, hand and toe warmers, and who knows what else.
If drop bags were regularly disappearing or being broken into, Iditarod would have a security problem. That this isn’t happening would indicate security is good enough.
Spending money to set up webcams at checkpoints so online race-followers can watch Iditarod racers come and go might be a justified cost for a race trying to grow its fan base, but webcams to monitor the checkpoint drop bags would appear nothing but a waste of money.
Maybe a cam in White Mountain where the mushers take the mandatory 8-hour rest before the last push to Nome. Maybe some fans would want to watch to see how the dogs are sleeping there. A cam on the dog yard there might be justifiable.
More than that?
Despite what Seavey contends, the rest of it isn’t the race’s problem. It’s each musher’s problem. Life is neither fair nor safe. It’s hard to imagine many mushers being so worried that someone is out to get them that they truly fear the danger of tramadol-laced treats being dumped along the trail.
Or drug-laced treats of any kind.
If you were that paranoid, wouldn’t you worry more about treats laced with something to make your dogs sick or poison them? There are plenty of sick people in the world. It is remotely possible one of them could do this.
Unfortunately, the Iditarod can’t afford to police 1,000 miles of wilderness trail in weather that is sometimes hostile to protect against a remote possibility. And even if the Iditarod could afford to patrol, catching the lone-wolf terrorist has proven hugely difficult everywhere and anywhere.
If mushers are truly worried about trail terrorists trying to dope or otherwise mess up their dogs, they can buy a GoPro and lash it to the handlebar of their sled to monitor for those whatever-laced treats or wear a helmet cam as four-time champ Jeff King did for his trip through Rainy Pass and the Dalzell Gorge in 2014.
There don’t look to be lot of dogs grabbing snacks off the trail in his video. But then the dog teams of Iditarod front-runners tend to be pretty well-trained and all about their business once they hit the 1,000-mile trail to Nome.