Alaska’s “Last Great Race” – the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race – is on the verge of losing the support of both its competitors and sponsors and could collapse, a consultant to the Iditarod Trail Committee warned in a secret, December report to the board of directors.
“The board must understand the urgency to mend these relationships,” Dennis McMillian of The Foraker Group wrote in the document obtained by craigmedred.news. “Foraker senses that both of these partner groups are on the verge of withdrawing their support for this race as a result of their distrust in this board.”
The Foraker Group is an Alaska-based consultancy that advises non-profit organizations on good governance. The Iditarod operates as a federally recognized, non-profit charitable organizations.
Attacked regularly and repeatedly by animal right’s groups since the 1980s, the Iditarod has many times found itself struggling to survive, but has always managed to soldier on as the 49th state’s signature sporting event.
Alaska-based sponsors of the race have hung on through thick and thin in support, but McMillian judged that the latest Iditarod problems might have pushed them to the limit.
Deep into an eight-page, single-spaced report, he observed that “while no sponsor shared specific thinking about their ongoing support, Dennis McMillian, an individual with 40 years in nonprofit management and fund-raising, witnessed body language and questions from the sponsors at the ITC sponsor meeting in October that were clear.
“While I would be glad to be proven wrong on such issues (as this), I rarely am.”
And while sponsors and mushers are Iditarod’s biggest immediate problem, McMillian warned the Iditarod could be facing an even bigger danger lurking just over the horizon. Iditarod volunteers who contacted Foraker did so to “express negative perceptions about the board and staff,” he wrote.
The Iditarod is multi-million dollar sporting event carried north for 1,000 miles from Willow to Nome each March on the backs of volunteer veterinarians who care for the dogs and volunteer dog handlers, cooks, communications personnel and others who staff the more than two dozen checkpoints along the wilderness trail.
“…If they were to disappear,” McMillian warned, “the financial commitment (necessary) to maintain the race could be overwhelming.”
McMillian did not return a phone call.
A troubled champion
The Iditarod’s latest problems arose from the race’s first publicly revealed doping case. The team of four-time champ Dallas Seavey from Willow was found to be doped after the finish of the 1,000-mile race in Nome in March of last year.
The youngest musher ever to win the Iditarod, the grandson of one of the mushers who ran the first race in 1973, the son of another former champ, the only musher in a position to challenge the legendary Rick Swenson’s five Iditarod wins, a one-time Alaska reality TV show star and a motivational speaker, the well-spoken, now 30-year-old Seavey was the golden boy of the modern Iditarod.
When a Oregon drug-testing lab informed race officials in March that all four of the four dogs tested in his team in Nome were positive for tramadol, an opioid pain-killer, Iditarod officials weren’t sure what to do. They balked at immediately revealing the dogs had been doped somewhere along the last 90 miles of trail or in the Nome dog lot.
Instead, the race covered the incident up for six months while it tried to figure out what to do.
Iditarod rules at the time prohibited mushers from doping dogs but established no standards for liability. When Seavey insisted that he had no idea how the dope got in the dogs, the Iditarod realized it had a problem.
To act on the doping, it would need to prove Seavey doped the dogs, and there was no way to do that. Most of the race takes place in the wilderness. Mushers spend more time out of sight of anyone than they do in sight of anyone.
“When ITC concluded that no one could be held accountable for this incident under current policy, it was quick to notify the musher involved,” McMillian wrote, “assuring him that he was not being accused, disqualified or held accountable in any way.
Meanwhile, he added, “ITC officials were concerned that notifying too many people too soon about the incident may complicate public relations, so this news was not released in a timely manner to sponsors or the public.”
The Iditarod never did sanction Seavey in any way, but it did rewrite its rule to mandate “strict liability.” Strict liability is the standard in other sporting events, including those sanctioned by the International Federation of Sleddog Sports (IFSS).
The Iditarod announced the rule change in October, sans any mention of the musher involved, and all hell broke loose. Eventually, Seavey’s name was forced out of the Iditarod, and he is now on the warpath against the race, claiming it engaged in a deliberate attempt to smear him.
The details of what exactly preceded the October revelations might never been known. Seavey says the Iditarod told him he had done nothing wrong. Iditarod denies that, saying they told him only that they didn’t know. Iditarod does reportedly have emails with Seavey discussing all of this that might shed some light on just what went down, but the race has ignored requests to release those emails.
McMillian summarized all of this by saying the Iditarod was “not successful in working with the musher to ensure that he could stand united with ITC. Rather, the musher used the opportunity to increase distrust many mushers already have with the ITC.”
It has, however, forged ahead in changing its doping rule to correspond with that in other sports, another move that angers Seavey who argues the rule is unfair to mushers. He believes the Iditarod should be protecting them, not policing them.
And the strict liability rule clearly puts any musher found to have doped dogs in a tough spot.
“Athletes are responsible for any prohibited substance or its metabolites or
markers found to be present in their dog’s samples,” the IFSS rules says. “Accordingly, it is not necessary that intent, fault, negligence or knowing use on the athlete’s part be demonstrated in order to establish an anti-doping rule violation.”
Some mushers have told craigmedred.news that the last year’s doping case really dates back to 2016 when they say a number of mushers were seen giving their dogs unknown medications along the trail. They have suggested the Iditarod tighten down its doping controls in 2017.
The Iditarod has refused to comment.
Most of the Iditarod’s problems with sponsors and mushers are related to trust, McMillian wrote.
Board members, he said, have too many seeming conflicts of interest, and the race does too much of its business in secret.
“As a nonprofit corporation, ITC is under no legal obligation for transparency of confidential information,” he wrote, “however, such disclosure is recommended…to ensure that the reputation of the ITC, its sponsors, and participants are protected.”
The Iditarod has long suffered from a lack of transparency, in large part because of fear of coming under attack by animal-rights groups. The Humane Society of the United States – an anti-hunting, anti-trapping, animal-protection organization – almost brought the race down in the early 1990s.
The Iditarod in that period was caught covering up some dog deaths and lost support with sponsors and fans.
Multiple sources, including veterinarians and former Iditarod board members, all of whom have asked for anonymity, have told craigmedred.news that Seavey’s doping positive was not the race’s first. In the past, they said, some mushers were asked to retire or take some time off from the race after being discovered with doped dogs. Others were given warnings, they said.
It is unclear if any of these suggestions were made to Seavey, but long before the news leaked out in October that the Iditarod had doped dogs and they were Seavey’s, he told friends and a dog handler that he was planning to race the Finnmarkslopet in Norway this year instead of the Iditarod.
Stu Nelson, the Iditarod chief veterinarian, has repeatedly ignored questions about past doping. Six days ago he was emailed a question asked whether Mitch Seavey – Dallas’s father – has been told “to stop using ‘supplements’ containing prohibited doping substances?”
As with other requests for information on doping, this one has gone unanswered. Mitch is sponsored by Young Living Essential Oils and has publicly promoted his use of their “wintergreen (oil) to help soothe aching muscles.”
Wintergreen contains methyl salicylate, a substance specifically prohibited by the Iditarod. A source familiar with Iditarod dog testing said it has been detected in the urine of Mitch’s dogs. Mitch says he was told that is not a problem.
Many mushers are into supplements and lotions. Veterinarians with knowledge of Iditarod dog testing say some prohibited substances that have popped up in drug tests have been blamed on either supplements or contaminated meat.
The Iditarod rule on doping makes no mention of supplements, which have proven to be both a well-known problem and a well-known excuse in other sports, but the Iditarod rule does warn mushers “to ensure that food, meat, snacks and veterinary supplies do not contain prohibited drugs.”
There is no indication in the rules of what exactly happens if they don’t ensure that.
Mitch has posted on his Facebook page that Nelson in 2009 specifically approved the use of wintergreen oil even though it contains a prohibited substance.
“I recently spoke with several mushers to confirm my memory and placed a call to Dr. Nelson, who was good enough to return my call yesterday by satellite phone,” Mitch posted on January 5. “He confirmed the mushers understanding, adding there has never been a positive drug test due to wintergreen oil.
The U.S. Anti-Doping Administration (USADA) posts online a “high list risk” of supplements a musher looking to gain an Iditarod advantage could easily consult. Dozens of the products on the list contain chemicals that could be useful in giving Iditarod dogs a boost.
If the Iditarod has approved use of a prohibited substance because it is contained in a supplement or lotion, it risks setting a dangerous precedent allowing mushers to argue they were simply giving their dogs supplements.
If prohibited substances are found in the urine of their dogs, the new doping rule would send them to “a review panel comprised of the race marshal, the chief veterinarian and three independent professionals appointed by the board president.” The new rule holds the musher “strictly liable” for the drugs, but the review panel can absolve the musher of responsibility if it is convinced “the positive tests resulted from causes completely beyond (the musher’s) control.”
The rule makes no mention of transparency, and establishes no penalties. It says only that the review board can impose “sanctions.”
IFSS rules require the automatic publication of the sanction if someone is caught doping, and list specific penalties for anyone caught with drugged dogs. Those penalties range from a reprimand to a lifetime ban for a second, serious doping offense.
Since the Iditarod doping story hit the news in October, a number of Iditarod veteran mushers have contacted craigmedred.news to express their opinions the Iditarod needs more and better drug testing and a whole lot more transparency.
None wanted to go on record. Some believe Dallas doped his dogs. Others concede there is no way of knowing for certain who doped Dallas’s dogs, and for that reason the claim that he could have been sabotaged simply cannot be ignored. None of them thought sabotage likely, but they agreed it wouldn’t be impossible either.
One called Dallas “the most competitive person I’ve ever met,” and then insisted that despite that Dallas would never dope a dog to win “because I just know he wouldn’t.”
Most agreed more transparency would be good. But one Iditarod veteran said an Iditarod contender from the Susitna Valley once pushed for a full and open accounting of doping positives during an Iditarod-sanctioned meeting of mushers only to be told to shut up. That report could not be confirmed.
Many are concerned – legitimately – that strict enforcement of doping rules and transparency could provide ammunition for animal right’s activists trying to kill the race. Fern Levitt, the director of the Canadian movie “Sled Dogs,” contends the race is now being run so fast that some of the dogs suffer physiological damage.
There is no documented evidence to support that claim, but the race has been getting harder for the dogs.
Since the last decade, the Iditarod has gone from a 9-day race to an 8-day race. The last five races – from 2013 to 2017 – have seen a winning average time of 8 days, 16 hours. A decade earlier – from 2003 to 2007 – the average winning time was 9 days, 15 hours.
The Iditarod has tried to protect itself from critics like Levitt by wrapping the race in a cloak of secrecy. And as it has done that, it has increasingly narrowed its governing organization to try to keep everything in the dog-mushing family.
That has created other problems.
McMillian said the board needs to do something about members with “a conflict of interest either as an active musher or one with such (an) immediate family relationship….
“It may be necessary that the directors with conflicts of interest resign. Six of the nine (directors) have conflicts and are perceived by some as making decisions through those conflicts. They may or may not be making decisions based on those conflicts, however, good governance cannot be easily achieved with a high level of perceived conflict.”
The board sent a letter to McMillian saying it was going to try to make some of the suggested changes, but no one appears to be resigning.
CORRECTION: Fern Levitt’s name was misspelled in an earlier version of this story. It also said the Iditarod had not rule on whether the use of salicylates constitutes a doping violation; the Iditarod has not commented by Mitch Seavey says he was told there is no problem if salicylates turn up in the urine of Iditarod dogs. They are, however, still banned in races sanctioned by the IFSS.