To hear Iditarod dog mushers of today tell it, nobody ever doped a dog in Alaska. Just ask them. They’ll give you an earful.
No one ever culled a dog either. The great bloodlines of today just fell from the sky. There were no rejects from all the breeding. There were no black, plastic garbage bags full of carcasses.
Such things just couldn’t have happened. They would be out of sync with the modern image of the Iditarod.
Well maybe, the time has come to open the closet and face the reality of history. Maybe in this #MeToo period of talking about subjects too long swept under the carpet, it’s time to inject a little honesty into the discussion of the Iditarod’s past and start a serious discussion of what the future should look like and how The Last Great Race gets there.
If the Iditarod is really going to run an event that’s “all about the dogs,” as Iditarod now likes to say, isn’t it better to figure out how to make the race “all about the dogs” before the hypocrisy of the claim catches up with everyone?
And it is going to catch up with everyone if some things don’t change.
The Alaska of today is a long, long way from the Alaska of 1973. The rest of the country is even farther away. Like it or not, attitudes toward canines have changed. There were 49 greyhound race tracks spread across 15 states in 1992. The number is down to 19 in five states now and fading.
Forty states have banned greyhound racing because people don’t like the idea of dogs competing for the entertainment of humans. The Iditarod has escaped a lot of the fall out from this societal change only because of the romantic image of mushers and dogs against the vast Alaska wilderness, and the increased emphasis on a race “all about the dogs.’
If that bubble bursts, the Iditarod is in trouble. The race needs to change, as it has changed before.
Drug testing wasn’t introduced randomly in the 1994 Iditarod. It was introduced because of concerns mushers themselves voiced about doping. And for 15 years the drug testing program appears to have tempered race performances.
From 1995 until 2011, Iditarod winning times stayed within a range of less than 24 hours from 8 days, 23 hours to 9 days, 21 hours.
Martin Buser from Big Lake set the fastest time in that period with an 1,000-mile run from Willow to Nome of 8 days, 22 hours, 46 minutes in 2002. The trail was near perfect that year, and Buser’s record stood for nine years.
John Baker from Kotzebue finally put a team under it in 2011 with a time of 8 days, 18 hours, 46 minutes. Ramey Smyth from Willow was second with a time also under that of Buser, but no one else in the race broke nine days.
A lot has changed since then. Baker’s record stood for only three years, a third as long as Buser’s. And since then the record has fallen twice in the span of three years.
A once 9-day race is now flirting with becoming an 8-day race. Mitch Seavey from Sterling won last year with a time of 8 days, 3 hours, 40 minutes. The race is suddenly going unbelievably fast.
Mitch’s time can be partially dismissed due to the 2017 race being run on a flatter, faster course along the frozen rivers of Central Alaska from Fairbanks to Nome rather than on the traditional Iditarod course from Willow, up over the Alaska Range and on.
But the 2016 record set by Mitch’s son, Dallas from Willow, came on the traditional course. Young Seavey finished in 8 days, 11 hours, 20 minutes. Behind him, seven more teams slipped under the 9-day bar. Dallas’s dogs were this year found to have been doped with tramadol, a synthetic opioid; Dallas contends that if the dogs were indeed doped someone else gave them the drugs.
Some other top mushers have rallied to his defense, arguing that Dallas’s dogs had to have been sabotaged because doping wouldn’t happen in today’s Iditarod.
That’s possible. Today’s fast times could all just be an accident of trail conditions or some other factors. But it is impossible to ignore both the past history of Iditarod doping and what has gone on in other sports in recent times.
From Lance Armstrong in cycling to Mark McGwire in baseball to Olympic champion Jemima Sumgong in marathon running to Justin Gaitlin in the sprints, big performance gains in short periods of time have invariably been linked to better living through chemistry.
And the Iditarod is a prime candidate for the use of performance enhancing drugs.
“The bottom line…is that doping seems to work VERY WELL,” writes Ross Tucker at the Science of Sport. An authority on endurance sports, Tucker points specifically at long-distance, multi-day events like the Tour de France – or the Iditarod – as the places where drugs can provide big advantages by reducing physical declines over days and days of competition.
“There’s substantial evidence that hormone levels, particularly testosterone, fall during the course of a race like the Tour,” he writes. “And so if Floyd Landis and others are using the drug, the benefit would come from defending this (performance) drop-off, which promotes recovery and hence allows them to maintain their form throughout the Tour. In theory then, the systematic use of drugs will have a large effect in cycling, not because it acutely boosts performance, but because it allows it to be maintained.”
Testosterone is a drug that requires a prescription but there is a significant black market for all performance enhancing drugs, and there are some natural substances, some of which might be found in supplements, that are known to boost testosterone levels. The Iditarod rules do not specifically ban testosterone though a ban on anabolic steroids in general could be read to ban the drug. Supplements are now something of a rage in sled-dog sports.
Testosterone has been an issue for years in greyhound racing, where it is often used to prevent females from coming into heat. And these days the Iditarod dogs are running more and more like greyhounds, and finishing faster and faster almost every year.
The average time for the 260-mile run along the Bering Sea coast from Unalakleet to Nome on the last leg of the race is five hours faster over the last five years than the average for the five years prior to 2010. And in the last two years, it has averaged 14 hours faster than the 2006-2010 average.
The average time for the Iditarod winning team on the penultimate stretch of trail from White Mountain to the Safety Roadhouse averaged 6 hours and 42 minutes over the last five years. In the five years prior to 2010, the time averaged 7 hours and 12 minutes, a full half hour slower.
These improvements could be statistical oddities. They could reflect improvements in training and nutrition. They could be a result of legal ingredients in supplements. Or they could be the result of more.
Former Iditarod champ Jerry Riley of Nenana had this simple observation about Iditarod drug use: “Once it started, it never stopped.”
He could be right.
Multiple sources associated with past Iditarod boards and veterinarians involved with the race have told craigmedred.news that Dallas Seavey was not the first Iditarod musher whose team tested positive for drugs.
They have said there have been multiple other “adverse analytical findings.” They have said some mushers have been issued doping warnings while others have been asked by the board’s executive committee to take time off from the race.
Several mushers, meanwhile, have privately revealed they witnessed other mushers doping dogs over the years.
Most Iditarod mushers, it is safe to say, don’t dope. Most Iditarod mushers are amateurs running the event just to finish. For some of them, the dogs in their teams are family. But what people will do to compete cannot be underestimated. A 2014 survey of 4,000 Scottish cyclists found 10 percent of them admitting to doping no matter how little they had to gain.
No one has been willing to go on the record with their Iditarod doping statements, and the Iditarod has stonewalled requests for information.
More than a month ago, Iditarod chief veterinarian Stuart Nelson was emailed a question as to why cobalt – a substance that can be used to mimic the hypoxia of an oxygen-tent and a substance abused by Russian Olympic dopers – wasn’t on the Iditarod’s prohibited drug list. Nelson didn’t answer.
Almost two weeks ago, he was sent two very simple and specific questions:
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.”
When the Iditarod adopted drug testing rules in 1994, it wasn’t because the race was following some sort of global trend aimed at cleaning up sport; that’s for sure. The Tour of Shame, the Festina Affair, wouldn’t hit the Tour de France for another four years.
The Chinese were at the time being celebrated for a breakthrough in women’s running. In 1993, Wang Junxia emerged from nowhere to take an unbelievable 42 seconds off the women’s world record in the 10,000 meters.
Most everyone seemed content to believe she and other recording-breaking women in “Ma’s Army” were suddenly the fastest runners in the world thanks to coach Mao “Ma” Dezhen’s program of feeding them turtle blood and caterpillar fungus, banning them from dating, cutting their hair short and training high in the Tibetan Alps.
The 1994 winner of the Tour was now-suspected-doper Miguel Indurian, who was presumed to be dope free in ’94 because almost no one was doping then – or so it was believed. Questions have arisen since, but doping was far from the spotlight in ’94.
The World Anti-Doping Agency wasn’t created until 1999. The U.S. Anti-Drug Agency (USADA) didn’t come along until a year later. And the epidemic of performance-enhancing drugs in sports around the globe – including in horse and dog racing – didn’t really explode into public view until the new millennium.
So why they hell did the Iditarod decide it needed a doping rule half a decade earlier?
The answer is simple: Because a lot of dog mushers thought their competition was cheating.
I personally know there was a good bit of doping going on in the Iditarod of the ’80s because the late chief Iditarod veterinarian Del Carter and I talked about it somewhat regularly through the mid-80s.
Not to speak unkindly of the dead, but I was never sure if Carter was a doping enabler or a doping opponent. I knew what I was. I was a reporter enamored of the Iditarod mystique and happy to rationalize away journalistic responsibilities.
This was easy enough to do. The Anchorage Daily News at that time had a policy banning the use of “informed sources,” though the paper regularly ran wire stories which attributed almost everything to informed sources.
Still, the ADN prided itself on being pure on the local level while living in the real, gray world at the national level. And the “no unnamed sources rule” was convenient for a reporter looking at a story to which no one was ever going to publicly attach his or her name.
It enabled me to benefit from the Iditarod like a lot of other people benefited from the Iditarod. In 1987, I shared the American Society of Newspaper Editors award for Deadline Reporting for Iditarod race coverage.
It was the next best thing to a Pulitzer Price. I got to go to San Fransisco and hang out with journalistic big shots. The Iditarod stories went into the book Best Newspaper Writing 1987. The Los Angeles Times tried to recruit me, and like an idiot I ignored the pitch.
I was having too damn much fun in Alaska. Newspapers were near their peak. The Daily News was on the verge of winning one of the country’s last great newspaper wars against the Anchorage Times. I got sent all over the state to hunt and fish, and chase the Iditarod and Iditasport and Arctic Man.
Against that backdrop, and with the feeling growing that Iditarod wanted to clean up its own mess, it was easy to rationalize the decision to overlook doping and some other less than tasteful activities associated with the race.
The race did get better, too. Mushers learned better dog care. Deaths went down. The foot problems that had sometimes left the trail bloody went away. Straw started showing up in all the checkpoints, largely because mushers tending to cold hands liked to get their fingers down in between a warm dog and insulating straw, but the straw benefited the dogs, too.
A seeming statistical impossibility – a race free of dog deaths – came along in 2009 and then another and another and another.
Then came last year with three dogs collapsing and dying on the trail, two more dead in accidents, and finally the Dallas Seavey dogs turning up doped.
And just as in the ’80s, nobody wanted to talk publicly about much of any of it.
If anything, the silence had only deepened over the years in the face of the doping rules and Iditarod’s ever-growing fame. An Iditarod musher would be a fool to talk about doping these days. It would be much better to hug the omerta close, overlook human nature, and pretend doping couldn’t happen.
No matter how unrealistic that view.
About 25,000 dogs have run the Iditarod since doping rules were instituted, and until this year there was never a positive test? Over the same time period, there have been about 5,000 riders in the Tour, and dozens have tested positive for drugs.
Granted, there might be bigger incentives to dope in the Tour than in the Iditarod. But there’s substantial prestige associated with winning The Last Great Race. Forget the $70,000 or more in prize money and the brand, new pickup, the Iditarod victor is guaranteed status as a full-on, local hero with fans around the globe.
There are people today from just about every U.S. state and every northern country rallying to Dallas’s defense firm in their belief that because he won the Iditarod and because they like him, he is innocent. And he is playing to them by demanding the Iditarod prove he doped, a standard he knows the Iditarod can’t meet.
If someone sabotaged Dallas’s team by stuffing tramadol pills down the throats of the dogs in White Mountain or Nome, it would be difficult to prove without multiple witnesses and/or a confession. The task would be equally difficult, if not more so, if someone in the lab in Oregon figured out, first, how to identify the urine samples from Dallas’s dogs and then how to tamper with those samples without being noticed.
And if Dallas Seavey himself stopped somewhere along the trail from White Mountain to Nome to stuff tramadol pills down the throats of seven dogs far out of sight of anyone, it would be impossible to prove he doped the dogs. That would make his claim of “prove it,” the ultimate in offense as the best defense.
Dallas’s response to a complicated situation is to demand that since Iditarod officials can’t prove he doped, they should “tender their resignations,” according to his last press communique.
At the end, that missive adds that the Iditarod’s lack of transparency “is an institutional problem that needs to be immediately addressed and remedied.” The second request is far more reasonable and sensible than the first.
Maybe Iditarod could start by revealing any and all doping positives since the day drug testing began.