Dallas Seavey/Singer Associates photo

News analysis

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.

Past doping

Multiple sources associated with past Iditarod boards and veterinarians involved with the race have told 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:

“1.) How many adverse findings were there before that involving Dallas Seavey?
“2.) Was (a certain musher named in the e-mail but not to be named here) given a.) a warning; or b.) asked to take a year off?”
Again, the questions went unanswered. The Iditarod Official Finishers Club has demanded the race organizers be more transparent, but there is no sign of that. The Iditarod has long been a secretive operation.
After Dallas’s dogs were found to be doped, the Iditarod buried the information for about six months while it discussed the doping with Dallas. The two sides have since presented sharply differing and distinct descriptions of what went on from the March end of the race until Dallas was publicly connected to the doped team on Oct. 23.
Just prior to the latter date, Dallas – with help from the Anchorage Daily News – anonymously circulated a statement he had written claiming that an unnamed “Musher X was determined unlikely to have administered a drug to their own dogs. Musher X was led to believe that the Head Veterinarian (Nelson) and Race Marshall (Mark Nordman) 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.”
The Iditarod has never revealed why it didn’t come clean about Dallas’s doped dogs when making the announcement of the rule change, but did at the time state the information was being kept secret “because of the sensitivity of this matter.”
And there is little doubt the matter was sensitive.
After 23 years of a doping program that had never found a doped dog – or at least not a publicly revealed doped dog – the Iditarod had decided to expose a case in which it appears an entire team was doped on the way to the finish line. That revelation was predictably destined to start a cascade of events that eventually led to Dallas being publicly identified and the Finishers Club making that plea for transparency.
Along the way, the Iditarod disputed Dallas’s claim that there was some sort of agreement in the works that was going to make the doping problem of the race’s biggest star disappear, saying in a public statement that “both Dr. Nelson and Mr. Nordman unequivocally confirm that there is absolutely no truth to  any of the assertions (in the Musher X statement).  ITC never made a determination that it was unlikely Musher X 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” to end future legal wrangling over intent.
The Iditarod has since muted the rhetoric and tried to make nice with the media savvy, 30-year-old, younger Seavey, a former reality TV star, the youngest musher to win the Iditarod, a now-four-time winner, and the only player in the game who has any chance of challenging the five-win success of Iditarod legend Rick Swenson of Fairbanks.
A quest by Dallas to tie and then break the longest standing record in Iditarod history would be a made-for-promotion event.
Dallas’s response to Iditarod has been to hire a hotshot, San Fransisco public relations firm and go on an anti-Iditarod crusade aimed directly at the race’s strict liability standard even though he is now signed to compete in a Norwegian race that uses the strict liability standard.
Strict liability is the norm in endurance sports, including sled-dog races of all sorts overseen by the International Federation of Sled Dog Sports. Norway’s Finnmarkslopet is an IFSS-sanctioned event. If Dallas’s dogs were found to be doped in Norway this March, he would be automatically be disqualified from the Finnmarkslopet unless he can provide doping officials with evidence of sabotage.
Dallas was not disqualified from the Iditarod or punished by the race in any other way. The Iditarod is not an IFSS sanctioned event. The Iditarod makes its own rules, and in that regard it was once a leader in the anti-doping movement.

Some history

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.

Mea culpa

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.











11 replies »

  1. There are plenty of incentives for the back of the pack to dope too. They want to be shining their belt buckles with the rest of the finishers club, recouping at least $1000 worth of their outrageous expenses, and returing as local heros back to where ever they came from.

    And the back of the pack is having to go faster and faster just to keep up. In 2007 the red lantern team finished in just under 16 days 12 hours — the 2017 racers shaved 4 DAYS off that time. If, in 2017, a team was unable to finish in under 14 days, they certainly would have been DQ’d under the “competitiveness” rule.

    So maybe anabolics are not the first choice for this group, but painkillers would seem like a no brainer to keep a team in the race, especially on the final push to Nome. The same thought process would make sense for Dallas, as historically cheaters have hung onto their prize money and were never publically named. If his team was looking like it wasn’t going to make it to the burled arch unassisted, it was probably worth the $60K gamble to drug them and hope for the best.

    And then what about the middle of the pack finishers who still take home a fair amount of prize money, like Jason Mackey, who finished 21st in 2017 and won $11,614, knowing with near certainty that his dogs would not be subjected drug screening? If the Iditarod’s anti-doping program is to be considered an effective deterrent to cheating, then every single team should be tested at the finish line.

    • Great comment. Since mushers drop out during the race, every dog should be tested before the start and at several checkpoints, including Nome.

  2. Craig, I can see that you really, really, really want to find evidence that Iditarod mushers are doping. Well great, go for it. But maybe it’s not the greatest journalism to be trying to justify a verdict that you already have arrived at. Maybe it would be better journalism to look at obvious factors that would reduce race times significantly. In particular – the weather. Have you happened to notice it’s been a lot warmer in Alaska the last 10 years? Do you know what warmer weather does to winter trails? Yep, that’s right … it makes them faster. A lot faster. A dog team goes a lot faster on hard trails, ice or even frozen dirt than through the soft cold powder of the Iditarods of yesteryear.

    And then there is the trail grooming factor. A lot more of that on the trail these days. Way more. And even if there isn’t grooming, the modern day beast machines like Skidoo SWTs, AC Bearcats and Yamaha Vikings make trails that are like bike paths.

    And speaking of bikes … basically you are implying that Jeff Oatley is a doper. Yes you are. By your logic, how else could someone cut several days off the bike record to Nome? Several DAYS!
    Gotta be drugs, right Craig? Oh, so he did it clean, and when the trail was absolutely perfect for riding a bike? Got it. So if a fast trail allows a human to set an Iditarod Trail record without doping, then surely a fast trail can allow a dog team to set a record without doping. You got to admit that. Again, please don’t jump to the conclusion that race records are evidence of doping. Without real proof you are just farting in the wind.

  3. When dogs are given supplements that contain ingredients naturally present in food, would tests ever be positive for anabolic steroids?

    “’The reason dietary supplements are regulated as foods, not drugs, is that their ingredients are naturally present as components of what people eat,’ says Collins. ‘Amino acids, for example, are present in our foods. Supplement products made of these amino acids are very different from prescription drug products like testosterone and HGH. The supplement products help spur the body to naturally produce more hormones, while the prescription drugs are synthetic versions of the hormones themselves.’” –

  4. According to the authors of Freakonomics, sports and cheating go hand and hand. Craig, your statement “what people do to compete cannot be underestimated” has repeatedly been proven to be accurate. There’s truely no factual basis for the claim: “Most Iditarod mushers, it is safe to say, don’t dope.”

  5. Craig, the idea of the Oregon Lab being somehow involved wouldn’t necessarily need to identify Dallas’ dogs if the intent was to cause a problem for the race. There seem to be plenty of individuals wanting the race outlawed just following the comments on your Iditarod posts.

    • have to disagree, Bill. if this had been Nic’s dogs instead of Dallas’s dogs, i’d bet my house Nic would be under a bus somewhere and for that reason out of Iditarod 2018. but lab tampering really makes little sense for a different reason: the lab had to have known about previous positives about which nothing was done. why would they think this would be any different?
      which brings us to the biggest unanswered question of all: why did Iditarod in this case decide it needed to fix it doping rule to conform to the “strict liability standard” in place in every other major competition?
      were the Seaveys threatening suit if the Iditarod DQed Dallas because of this doping? or did the Iditarod see a rule change as a way to avoid DQing its biggest star because of the doping?
      and what exactly did go on in those months of talks between Iditarod and Dallas? why haven’t Nordman and Nelson been allowed to sit down and talk with the media about that?

      • Craig, I wasn’t putting it on the Lab, necessarily, but just on some nutcase happening to be working there at the time with a bone to pick.

  6. “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it. The lie can be maintained only for such time as the State can shield the people from the political, economic and/or military consequences of the lie. It thus becomes vitally important for the State to use all of its powers to repress dissent, for the truth is the mortal enemy of the lie, and thus by extension, the truth is the greatest enemy of the State.”

    Joseph Goebbels, Nazi Propagandist Germany

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