Accused Iditarod dog-doper Dallas Seavey isn’t the only one claiming sabotage.
Colombian cyclist Robinson Lopez, the winner of that country’s U-23 national championship, this week said he was tricked into ingesting CERA, a state-of-the-art form of erythropoietin (EPO).
Now facing a ban of two to four years, Lopez said he was the victim of a “deception” by someone who gave him “vitamins” that were really a high-power, performance-enhancing drugs. EPO increases the oxygen-carrying capacity of the blood and thus boosts aerobic performance. It was one of a variety of drugs disgraced Tour de France rider Lance Armstrong was using.
Over the years, there has been a lot of speculation that EPO would help boost the performance of sled dogs in the 1,100-mile Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race from Willow to Nome, but no one has ever been caught using it.
Or if they were caught, the infraction was never revealed.
Prior to this year, the Iditarod had not publicly disclosed a single positive doping test. Then came the discovery of tramadol, a synthetic opioid, in four of Seavey’s dogs after the finish of the race in March. The dogs were the only four of his seven dogs tested after the race finish.
Four positives in a sample of four of seven dogs yields a probability of better than 99 percent that all of the dogs in the team were doped. Seavey said he didn’t give the dogs drugs, so his team had to have been sabotaged.
Tramadol was an odd drug to pop up in Iditarod. Veterinarians say they don’t see it as major PED like EPO. Some of the vets say they don’t think it would do much at all for a dog team because dogs don’t get the same opioid-like boost out of tramadol that humans do.
But a vet who has studied the drug extensively said it might give dogs a Cymbalta-like boost. Cymbalta is an anti-depressant drug now widely prescribed to treat fibromyalgia, a chronic disorder marked by widespread muscle pain and tenderness, and overwhelming tiredness. These are ailments from which Iditarod dogs often appear to be suffering as they near the end of the Iditarod.
In a longer than 17 minutes youtube denial of doping, Seavey said he did not give his dogs tramadol and made an argument for the Iditarod being unique from other sports and vulnerable to sabotage because mushers can’t keep an eye on their dogs every second of every day.
But if Lopez is to be believed, any athlete can be sabotaged with a little trickery.
To explain the EPO in his urine, Lopez told told the Spanish-language website Ciclo21, “It was all part of a deception that was done to me. A person advised me, but he did it very badly, and apparently gave me some vitamins, which I consumed without knowing what I was getting into.”
He claimed to be unaware the “vitamins” contained EPO.
He has not identified the person who gave him the “vitamins,” and the website CyclingNews reported the 20-year-old cyclist was indicating he might be willing to just accept a penalty and serve a ban.
The CyclingNews translation of the Ciclo21 report had Lopez saying this:
“I told them that I was willing to collaborate so that my sanction is not so long. The idea is to do it to build trust for a clean sport and so that the younger guys who come up behind do not trust people who claim to be your friend.
“I did it (the doping) autonomously. Neither my colleagues, nor trainers nor Nairo knew. They have only given me all their support since I came to the team. I just want to apologize.”
Nairo would be Nairo Quintana, the Colombian who is a top competitor in the Tour de France. Lopez rides for a Colombian team reportedly sponsored by Quintana. The thoroughness of doping controls in Colombia has come under question.
“Gustavo Duncan, a columnist for the Bogotá daily El Tiempo, said Colombian
cycling has ‘an enormous doping problem.’ But as with European cycling during the
doping scandals of the 1990s and 2000s, Duncan says there’s a code of silence
among Colombian riders and much of the cycling media,” the New York Times reported earlier this year. “When Colombian cyclist Juan Pablo Villegas broke that code in 2015 by openly discussing doping at the country’s top races, he said that the cycling federation pressured him to retract his statements and that he was showered with insults on social media and at races.
“‘Riders threatened to knock me over,’ said Villegas, 29, who now rides for the
Medellín-based Manzana Postobón Team. ‘The atmosphere was so hostile that I
withdrew from cycling for the next year.'”
Prior to the discovery of Seavey’s doped dogs, some believed the 23-year-old Iditarod anti-doping program was just for show. Given the lack of a signal reported positive over more two decades of testing, some went so far as to question whether the urine samples taken from the dogs were even tested.
It is now known the samples are tested, but mushers and fans have rallied to support Seavey’s claim that sabotage must be involved. Already a four-time champ at age 30 and clearly the Iditarod’s brightest star of a new generation of mushers, he is simply not the kind of person who would dope his dogs in an effort to gain an advantage, they say.
He has also dropped out of this year’s race. Laura Neese of Michigan pulled out, too. Her sponsor, Ed Stielstra of Nature’s Kennel in Michigan wrote on the kennel’s Facebook page that “the fact that the ITC (Iditarod Trail Committee) took over six months to release the results of a positive drug test for a performance enhancing drug is not acceptable. Little appears to have been done to rectify this horrible situation and this is below the standards of a world-class event. Mushers and race organizations can work together to minimize the potential of sabotage, review violations with unbiased panels of experts, and also apply stiff penalties to offenders.”
Both the ITC and Seavey, who was notified of the positive doping test only days after tramadol was detected, kept the information secret from March to October. Seavey has said he was led to believe he was going to be cleared, and there was no problem.
The doping positive became public only after Iditarod proposed a rewrite of its doping rules to establish a “strict liability” standard for doping violations. The ITC at that time revealed a doped team had been discovered in Nome after the race this year, but Iditarod lawyers concluded no penalty could be imposed because they couldn’t prove the musher intended to dope the dogs.
A strict liability rule – the norm in every endurance sport from horse racing to cycling and the norm in races sanctioned by the International Federal for Sled Dogs Sports (IFSS) – means that if a competitor, or the competitor’s animals, are found to contain a prohibited drug, the burden rests on him or her to show where the drugs might have come from.
The Iditarod is not sanctioned by IFSS. And it at first refused to identify the musher with the doped dogs.
What followed was widespread speculation over whose team was involved. The field of suspects was quickly reduced to the Iditarod’s top-20 finishers, because they are the only mushers with teams tested at the finish line in Nome.
The fact that one of the race’s top-20 was the doper led to increasing pressure to identify whose team was involved and what the drug. The Iditarod first revealed the drug and then, as pressure grew, finally released Seavey’s name.