Two months have passed since four-time Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race champ Seavey hired a high-power, San Francisco crisis-management firm to probe who doped his dog team in Nome last year, and not a word has emerged as to progress in the investigation.
Elise Houren, the account executive for Singer Associates Inc. handling the Seavey case, was said to be in a meeting today. Calls were referred to her voicemail. A message left there was not returned.
Meanwhile, Seavey was busy opening a new front in his war against the organizers of The Last Great Race, suggesting to a KTVA sportscaster that the Iditarod Trail Committee might have framed its biggest star because of a “personal vendetta”and that an Oregon laboratory might have cooperated because its director – University of Oregon professor A. Morrie Craig – is facing charges of sexual harassment and bullying.
How exactly those charges relate to a suggestion of fraud at the lab despite any evidence is unclear, but KTVA sportscaster John Thompson prompted Seavey with this:
“And the man that oversees the ITC drug testing is Dr. Morrie Craig. Ah, I don’t know if he is currently working for Oregon State. He’s as a professor. There was some things. Did a Google search on Morrie Craig….
Seavey: “I heard.”
Thompson: “…I did, and turned out he was fired for sexual harassment bullying. He’s appealing that right now. I think they’re going through a process….but he’s supposedly, Dr. Morrie Craig, the only person on the planet who has access to the name and to the codes (for Seavey’s doped dogs.)
Seavey: “So what I know, is that when I asked (Iditarod chief veterinarian) Stu Nelson, who did look at this? Who made a decision? Who decided this was a positive test. The only name I get is Morrie Craig. That he told us that this was a positive test. And asked, did anybody else look at this or review this? And I heard of nobody else….
“He is the only person who holds the name of the musher and the bar code (on the samples). So when the lab sends information to apparently Morrie Craig, he then decides what to inform the Iditarod about. And he also then, there’s no checks and balances at this stage, that can say this is the musher that had this positive test.
“So that’s a serious bottle neck in the system with no checks and balances.”
Despite Dallas’s claim, doping protocol is to code urine samples and strictly limit access to the key to the codes to avoid the possiblity of tampering.
“The athlete’s name is not on the form that goes to the laboratory,” the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency says. “The laboratory reports all results based on the unique sample code numbers.”
Craig said in November he matched the codes on the urine samples to Dallas’s name on the code, double-checked the match, and then notified Iditarod.
Dallas now claims that because he doesn’t have the bar codes and the key in his hands that the tramadol-laced urine reported to the Iditarod could have come from “any dog.” Craig is a respected toxicologist named the Oregon Scientist of the year in 1996 and inducted into the Greyhound Hall of Fame for his work in studying doping in greyhounds.
The accusations of sexual harassment and bullying were levied against him in May, two months after he notified the Iditarod it had a dog team test positive for tramadol. That was Seavey’s dog team, Craig reported.
The university fired Craig about six months later on Oct. 30. Craig appealed and then, in among the rarest of moves for such cases these days, went to court demanding his case be publicly aired.
A Oregon judge is now wrestling with how to handle the case. Little detail has emerged, and what has been made public seems to go more to professional practices than sexual harassment or bullying.
“One veterinary student wrote to veterinary school dean Dr. Susan Tornquist in May to say she was ‘sickened’ by his instruction and demeanor in the classroom,” The Oregonian reported. “Denise Apperson, the student, listed her concerns: ‘The outright falsehoods, the misinterpretation of fundamental science, the misstatements of fact, the manufactured dramatics, all overlain with an overt creepiness.
“‘I hope that you understand where my strong words are coming from. I hope that there is a resolution to this.'”
The new mess in Oregon is sure to only add to the mess ongoing in Alaska since the doped Seavey dogs were first revealed in the fall.
A role for government
So maybe the time has come to ask an obvious question, a question someone should have asked months ago:
Why is Seavey-the-younger – 30-year-old Dallas is the son of three-time and defending champ Iditarod Mitch Seavey – being forced to undertake his own investigation into what the Iditarod itself has tacitly agreed could have been an attempt to sabotage the reputation of the 49th state’s signature sporting event?
Already facing financial hurdles, the Iditarod has said it is going to up checkpoint security this year in the wake of the Seavey doping controversy.
“We’re looking at a number of different protocols that we can deploy in the future,” Iditarod spokesman Chas St. George told KNOM radio in December. “This year, for instance, you will see, more visibly, individuals who are boots on the ground that will be monitoring our dog lots.”
Any increase in security will cost the cash-strapped Iditarod, and security is only necessary if sabotage is truly a threat. Nobody knows whether it is because nobody other than the crisis-management firm hired by Dallas has made any effort to determine if someone – be it a musher in the race, a phantom animal rights activist in Alaska, or a lab in Oregon – did, indeed, try to sabotage the Iditarod.
If the jockey in the Kentucky Derby claimed his horse was sabotaged and the owners of the race track, Churchill Downs Inc., agreed sabotage was a possibility, would authorities in Kentucky expect the horse owner to conduct an investigation to find out what happened?
If a driver in the Indianapolis 500 suggested sabotage and the owners of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, who manage the track, agreed sabotage a possibility, would authorities in Indiana expect the driver’s racing team to conduct an investigation to find out what happened?
If a golfer in the Masters Tournament claimed sabotage and the board of the Augusta National Country Club saw that as a possibility, would authorities in Georgia expect the golfer to conduct an investigation to find out what the hell happened?
Shortly after young Seavey was outed as the musher behind the first doped Iditarod team ever publicly revealed, he went on YouTube to proclaim his innocence and attack the Iditarod for failing to conduct an investigation to find out who doped his dogs.
Wrong and right
Seavey was wrong about the Iditarod’s responsibility to investigate. The Iditarod manages a dog race. No more. No less.
Dog mushers are allowed – allowed – to compete if they meet certain standards.
The Iditarod doesn’t have a responsibility to protect Seavey any more than it does to protect back-of-the-pack musher Robert Loveman, the Seely Lake, Mont., musher who got tossed out of Iditarod in 2009 without warning after race marshals judged him “not competitive.”
Loveman sued the Iditarod, arguing it broke its own rules in order to toss him overboard. An Alaska Superior Court judge eventually ruled that it didn’t matter because Loveman signed the standard musher release giving Iditarod the authority to run the race just about any way it wanted.
It’s not the Iditarod’s role to investigate potentially illegal acts that happen during the race. That is the responsibility of the Alaska State Troopers, who stepped in to investigate when a snowmachine driver from Nulato struck and killed a dog in the team of four-time champ Jeff King in 2016 and again when a young woman musher was groped by a snowmachine rider along the trail later the same year.
The state has a significant interest in the Iditarod. The state has been a regular financial backer of Iditarod. The race is the mainstay of the state’s small winter tourism industry. And an Iditarod run with doped dogs tarnishes not only the image of the Iditarod; it tarnishes the image of the state.
Some of those who see themselves as advocates for dogs are already actively making arguments that Iditarod mushers are doping their teams to ” help dogs run through the pain and push themselves harder and farther than they should.”
The award-winning movie “Sled Dogs,” which portrays Iditarod dogs as pushed to the limit (pretty much the norm in most canine, human and equestrian ultra-endurance events), has only added to the controversy.
Tramadol is a synthetic opiod. It in 2014 became a schedule IV drug under the federal Controlled Substances Act. Illegal use of a schedule IV drug carries a maximum penalty of up to five years in prison and/or up to $1 million in fines.
The state could certainly make a case that anyone other than Dallas or one of Dallas’s dog handlers giving his dogs a controlled substance constitutes criminal mischief in the third degree, a felony.
The statute clearly states that “a person commits the crime of criminal mischief in the third degree if, having no right to do so or any reasonable ground to believe the person has such a right…recklessly creates a risk of damage in an amount exceeding $100,000 to property of another by the use of widely dangerous means.”
Wells Fargo Bank, an Iditarod sponsor reported to contribute more than $100,000 to the race, pulled out of the race in the wake of the doping scandal. Dallas has stated that someone giving his dogs drugs was engaged in a reckless act. He told reporters the dogs could have suffered a reaction to the drugs and died.
Who done it?
The possibility Dallas himself doped his dogs cannot be discarded. Five reliable sources with connections to either the community of Iditarod veterinarians or the Iditarod board of directors have told craigmedred.news that his dogs were not the first Iditarod dogs to be found with prohibited drugs in their urine.
Two of those sources said past incidents were handled quietly, behind closed doors by the Iditarod’s executive committee, and that in a couple of cases mushers were told to take some time off from The Last Great Race. The Iditarod has officially refused to comment on past doping incidents or actions that might have been taken related to doping.
The latest case remained secret for months after Dallas’s dogs tested positive in March 2017. It only came to light in October when the Iditarod announced it was adding a “strict liability standard” to its doping rule as the norm in other sports.
In making that announcement, the race did not reveal the name of the musher whose team had tested positive for drugs or what drug had been used. Dallas’s name did not emerge until the Iditarod Official Finishers Club made a stink, charging that by not naming the musher involved the race had fueled speculation that implicated as potential dopers the drivers of any of the teams tested at the finish of the 1,000-mile race in Nome. All of the top-20 teams get tested.
Both Iditarod officials and Dallas later admitted they talked repeatedly between the positive drug test in March and the October announcement of the “strict liability rule.” Dallas has said those talks led him to believe he was in the clear. The Iditarod has never revealed its version of what exactly took place in those talks. It would appear possible, given reports of mushers in the past being asked to take time off from Iditarod as a form of punishment, that Dallas was asked to sit out the 2018 Iditarod.
Officially, Iditarod announced only that it had “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.”
Dallas is not running the 2018 Iditarod, but the Finnmarkslopet instead. The timing of the latter race makes it impossible to race in both Norway and Alaska the same year. Former Dallas handlers and friends of the Willow musher say he was planning to skip the Iditarod in favor of the Finnmarkslopet long before the doping controversy erupted in the news.
After that happened, he took to YouTube to lash out at the Iditarod for besmirching his name and said he would sit out the 2018 race. About a month later came the announcement he was heading for the Finnmarkslopet.
The authorities on drug testing have said Seavey’s dogs were doped either in Nome at the end of the 2017 race, along the last 90 miles of trail from White Mountain to the finish, or in White Mountain, the penultimate checkpoint.
White Mountain is an Eskimo community of about 200 on the Fish River. During the race, it swells with Iditarod race officials, mushers and media. It is possible that a stranger could dope dogs there, but it would take a bold saboteur. The risks of being spotted by a musher, a race official, a villager or even a journalist are high.
Dallas has suggested someone could put something in the food drop of a musher at White Mountain, but doping authorities say the uniformity of drug concentrations in this case make that unlikely. The data indicates that all of the dogs were given the same dose of drug. It would be difficult to get such an even distribution of drug by putting it in their food, they say.
Similar problems make sabotage along the trail – another suggestion – improbable, according to the experts. All four of the four dogs tested in Dallas’s seven-dog team had similar levels of tramadol in their urine. The four-for-four positives in the test make it a slam-dunk statistical probability all the dogs got a similar pill. It is highly unlikely all seven of Dallas’s dogs would pick up tramadol-laced treats left along the trail, as some Idiatrod fans have theorized.
All of this leaves the Bering Sea coast community of Nome, a busy place at the end of the Iditarod, the most likely place for a saboteur to strike. Nome has the most secure dog lot on the trail and a witness working the dog lot on the night in question said he didn’t see anything suspicious. But that doesn’t mean a doping couldn’t have happened there.
Dallas has said he believes it most likely the dogs were doped in Nome, in the dog lot, between 10:30 and 11 p.m. on the night he finished the race. How he arrived at that conclusion has never been explained. That statement came last year. Dallas appears to have since shifted his angle of attack.
He today told Thompson that if the Iditarod believe he doped his dogs, the trail committee should “prove it.” He knows that is an impossible demand. For much of the run from White Mountain to Nome, Seavey was alone on the trail with the team. He could have doped them anywhere with no one the wiser.
The “strict liability standard” the Iditarod has now adopted does away with the requirement of proof by stipulating that a musher is at all times responsible for the dog team. Nearly all professional endurance sports – including those overseen by the International Federation of Sleddog Sports (IFSS) – use a rule like this because without it, there is no way to stop doping.
Sabotage is an all too easy excuse. A Columbian cyclist now facing charges of doping with EPO is using it in a claim that he was tricked into cheating. Because of cycling’s strict liability rule, he can only make that claim stand if he reveals the people he claims tricked him and evidence can be found to show the claim true.
Doping is a problem that has become universal in sport and stopping it is not easy.
Better not to know?
The Iditarod never aggressively pursued Dallas. It did not fine or suspend him or withhold his race winnings of $59,637. In announcing the decision to upgrade the doping rule to include a strict liability standard, the race tried to keep Dallas’s name secret.
Many sources involved with Iditarod said the organization sees no upside in opening a serious probe into what has gone on in the Iditarod in the past, or in asking the state to open an investigation. The organization is worried, those sources say, about a possible downside to any such action given past, undisclosed doping and a less-than-perfect anti-doping program.
When Australian authorities decided to probe doping in racing dogs in that country several years ago the results turned into a public-relations nightmare for greyhound tracks.
“More than 50 NSW (New South Wales) trainers were caught doping greyhounds during a period of intense public scrutiny of the industry, including using ketamine, amphetamines, pesticides and cobalt,” The Guardian reported a year ago as the investigation was wrapping up.
“The penalties for the 51 doping offences ranged from a $500 fine for the use of morphine, codeine and norcodeine, to a 16-month racing suspension for the detection of anabolic steroids in the same greyhound three times in late 2015,” the newspaper said.
“Cobalt, a potentially dangerous substance that can help dogs perform at peak levels for longer, was detected in greyhounds in a dozen cases.”
The 221-page report on the investigation, a document readily available online since 2016, could be considered a guide to possible ways to dope dogs. Cobalt supplementation has been suggested as a possibility in Alaska where many mushers are into giving their dogs supplements.
Cobalt could be considered a poor man’s EPO. Comparatively cheap and readily available, it boosts concentrations of oxygen-carrying, red-blood cells. It fools the body into believing it is hypoxic, and the physiological response to hypoxia is to build more red-blood cells to compensate.
In that regard, cobalt works similar to a so-called “altitude tent,” a training-enhancement device used by many human athletes.
Research veterinarians who have been involved with the Iditarod over the years – vets who regularly court publicity – either stopped answering emails when asked about possible Iditarod cobalt use or dodged the question.
See no evil
Cobalt is not specifically banned by the Iditarod rules, but could be read to be illegal under a broad “blood doping” ban.
Asked if the cellular response of hypoxic dogs mimics that of well-studied humans, Michael Davis, a University of Oklahoma veterinarian who has worked with a number of Iditarod mushers and their dog teams, emailed that “I have studied the effects of hypoxia on canine exercise capacity – and the adaptation of dogs to hypoxia – on behalf of the US military. The results of those studies are not available to the public per the research agreement with the US military.”
“In recent years, athletes including cyclists have used drugs called HIF stabilizers (hypoxia inducible factor), an emerging class of kidney-disease drugs that stimulate the body’s own production of EPO by activating genes to express EPO. Many HIF stabilizers, such as argon and xenon, are detectable in blood tests, but cobalt chloride does the same thing and is more difficult to detect,” reporter Bill Gifford wrote.
Davis said he wasn’t at liberty to talk about this sort of thing.
“As a matter of personal policy, developed over the many years of studying exercise physiology in humans and animals, I strictly limit my discussions of performance-enhancing drugs in human and animal athletes to either peer-reviewed publications or informally with a few select scientific colleagues,” Davis said. “Other than affirming that I believe competition should be conducted according to the rules of that competition, I never discuss the topic of performance-enhancing drugs with folks involved in athletic competitions (competitors or officials), spectators, or members of the press.”
Davis was one of the vets involved in the discovery that the stress of the Iditarod leads to gastric ulcers in dogs. Until that discovery, bleeding ulcers regularly killed dogs in the races. Most Iditarod dogs are now given drugs to help eliminate ulcers. Davis has talked about this problem at some length in the popular media over the years.
Craigmedred.news has found no evidence of any now-competing Iditarod mushers giving dogs prohibited drugs or cobalt supplements, but blood-boosting techniques to enhance sports performance are not the sorts of thing people generally talk about.
Cobalt would appear to be more useful to an Iditarod musher than the tramadol found in Dallas’s dogs. Tramadol is considered a rather ineffective pain killer in canines, but a veterinarian who has studied the drug at length said it does have a “Cymbalta-like effect” on dogs.
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. Dogs nearing the end of the Iditarod in Nome are often visibly dealing with overwhelming tiredness and tender muscles.
While Davis refused to talk about the potential benefits of hypoxic conditioning, both he and Arleigh Reynolds, a musher and professor of veterinary medicine at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, offered opinions to the New York Times in 2007. Reynolds was at that time working with four-time Iditarod champ Jeff King of Denali Park on a hypoxia project.
“King has been an innovator in sled-dog racing,” wrote Times reporter Douglas Robson. “He trains his dogs in water during the summer and has developed sled and harness designs that have been copied by his peers. He spent about $50,000 last year converting a barn on his property in Denali, Alaska, into a chamber in which the oxygen content of the air is about the same as it is at 9,000 feet.”
As a result of the altitude barn, the red-blood-cell counts in King’s dogs increased and, for unknown reasons, their ability to remove lactic acid from their blood also increased by 60 percent and stayed elevated by 30 percent even two weeks after the dogs quit sleeping in the barn, according to The Times story.
Lactic acid build up slows muscle contractions. It is a body-protection mechanism. More oxygen becomes available to the muscles once they slow, and that protects against longterm muscle damage.
Davis told The Times in 2007 that he wasn’t sure the altitude tent would “provide a significant benefit in this type of event. I would expect there would be a benefit in a much shorter event, of 20 to 25 miles.”
The Oklahoma veterinarian added, however, that because sled dogs lose red-blood cells during the race, ”starting with a few more would translate to an advantage closer to the end.”
Asked about the King study during the reporting for this story, Davis emailed, “I was not involved in any way with Jeff King’s experiments with altitude chambers.”
Reynolds could not be reached. King, the defending Iditarod champ in 2007, finished fifth in the Iditarod in 2007. He rebounded to finish second the next year behind Lance Mackey from Fairbanks, who was in the middle of a remarkable string of four straight victories.
King has continued to use the perfectly legal attitude barn.
The dogs, he told the blog of the Mushing Loon Kennels in 2009, “are in there at about eight to 10 hours at a time. With the help of canine physiologist Arlie (sic) Reynolds, we were able to see on paper a definite advantage in things like red cell, pac cell, lactic acid reduction – stuff like that. But I don’t think I’ve won a race since I had it, so it’s clearly not a runaway must-have. Lucky for you ’cause it’s 50 grand worth of equipment. It is very fun though. I like to sleep out there as well. I sleep sound, and wake up feeling great. Don’t try to light a candle though, ’cause it don’t work.”
One of the most successful mushers in Iditarod history, King has four victories and 20 top-10 finishes. An astute businessman, he is among only a handful of mushers who could afford the expense of a sealed building in which to artificially take dogs to altitude. For others, a boost from a questionable supplement might appear far more attractive.
A variety of mushers have told craigmedred.news they are suspicious some of their competitors are doping their dogs. Most have mentioned the use of steroids in training for Iditarod to help build lean muscle mass and allow for higher volume training. Some drivers now claim to run teams up to 5,000 miles in training, something unheard of when the Iditarod began.
Two very experienced mushers said it was their belief that if they put that sort of mileage on their dogs in training without chemical assistance the dogs would break down.
Only a couple of mushers have publicly stated their concerns about doping. One is John Schandelmeier, a former winner of the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race (Alaska’s second biggest sled-dog event) and columnist for the Anchorage Daily News.
“The challenge is, of course, off-season doping,” he told Alaska Public Media only days ago, “and there is no way of testing for it.”
“You’re supposed to run a dog as a dog,” he added. “You’re not supposed to dope.”
Schandelmeier and his wife, Iditarod veteran Zoya Denure, are the verge of becoming pariahs for speaking out on reforms they believe necessary to clean up long-distance sled-dog racing.
The only other musher who would go on record about doping was now 82-year-old, Iditarod champ Jerry Riley from Nenana, who had a very simple answer when asked about doping.
“Once it started,” he said, “it never stopped.”
An Athabascan Indian from Central Alaska, Riley has a checkered Iditarod history. He was banned from the race for a while in the 1980s after he had a couple of dogs die. He said at the time that he’d only recently purchased the dogs from another musher and blamed their deaths on that musher doping the dogs.
Nobody believed his doping charges at the time, or at least that was what they said publicly.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story included a slightly different explanation of the Robert Loveman lawsuit.