As the leaders in the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race were racing toward a halfway stop in the famed gold-mining town of Dawson, Yukon Territory, Canada on Wednesday, the north’s most famous sled dog competition was stumbling toward another crisis.
The latest blowup came in the form of a letter from the Iditarod Official Finishers Club demanding the head of Andy Baker, the chairman of the board that oversees the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. In a Tuesday missive to the Iditarod Trail Committee, the IOFC didn’t waste any time getting to the point:
“The Iditarod Official Finishers Club seeks the immediate resignation of Andy Baker,” read the first line. Further down, the letter set a deadline of Feb. 15, warning that if Baker isn’t gone by the then “the bib drawing ceremony and the ceremonial start will be totally overshadowed by negative discourse and action demanding his resignation.” (see the full letter below)
What exactly “negative discourse and action demanding his resignation” means was not spelled out. Who drafted the letter is unclear. It was signed “Sincerely, The Iditarod Official Finishers Club.”
The IOFC is an organization even less transparent than the Iditarod’s governing body.
Billing itself as the “player’s union” of the Iditarod, the IOFC says that “only official finishers of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race are members of the IOFC. All official finishers are members of the club. However, the club has two levels of membership:
“Voting membership is available to any club member for an annual dues of $15 USD.”
General members can attend all meetings, if they find out about them, and have their say, but they cannot vote. The group is reported to have about 700 members. That’s the number of people still alive who started an Iditarod race in Anchorage, Willow or Fairbanks and finished 1,000 miles later in Nome to collect the belt buckle awarded an official finisher.
How many voting members the organization has is unknown. Wade Marrs from Willow, the current president, did not respond to requests for comment on Wednesday. Several veteran mushers signed up to race the Iditarod again this year, all of whom asked not to be identified so as to stay out of the turmoil now surrounding the event, said they only learned of the IOFC action when a copy of the letter to the board showed up in their email.
Along with asking for Baker’s immediate resignation, the letter said a “June timeline for the remaining members with a conflict of interest to resign is sufficient. We believe that the people serving on the board of directors should not have a vested interest in the outcome of the Iditarod Sled Dog Race.”
Baker said Wednesday that he has yet to see the letter. He laughed nervously when asked if he was going to resign and said “I better read the letter first. I don’t know why I’m getting singled out.
“The board works really hard trying to do good things. I don’t know why there’s so much stress and unrest.”
The IOFC letter fingered Baker as the leader in breaking “trust” with mushers, but offered no specifics. Some mushers are angry that Dallas Seavey of Willow, the race’s youngest winner and a well-spoken poster-boy for the Iditarod of the future, late last year became the first musher in Iditarod history publicly connected to doping.
Other mushers are angry the Iditarod didn’t penalize Seavey for being caught with a doped team.
And a lot of mushers are angry that the Iditarod, which let Seavey off the hook because it couldn’t prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that he doped the dogs, has now introduced a strict liability rule. That rule is the norm in competitive sports. It says that if an athlete, or an athlete’s horse, is caught with dope in their system they are presumed guilty.
The Iditarod has been in turmoil since the trail committee announced the rule change in October sans any mention of the musher involved. That fired up the Alaska rumor mill. Speculation ran wild. Every musher in the top-20 became a suspect.
Innocent mushers started pushing for the Iditarod to name the driver of the doped team. Marrs then emerged with a statement from a mysterious “Musher X” proclaiming his innocence. Meanwhile, 2017 Iditarod champ Mitch Seavey of Sterling, Dallas’s dad, started pushing the idea “Musher X” was sabotaged by “an adversary of that musher or of the race itself.”
Sabotage has come up as a defense in some cases, and saboteurs have been caught.
A Japanese sprint canoeist was banned from competition for eight years after he was found to have spiked a younger rival’s drink with anabolic steroids. The investigation into that doping positive also revealed that 32-year-old Yasuhiro Suzuki had tried “to sabotage other competitors…by such means as stealing equipment used in training and competition,” the Kyodo News reported.
The latter means of sabotage would be easy in the Iditarod. All mushers are required to carry certain “mandatory items,” including, among other things, an ax, “any promotional material provided by the ITC,” and a “veterinarian notebook.” It would be easier to pull that gear out of someone’s sled and make it disappear into the snow than to dope a team of dogs.
A few mushers upset that Seavey suffered no penalty for arriving in Nome with doped dogs also suggested it would be easier to slip something into his thermos to dope him instead of the dogs. Mushers have in the past been disqualified when marijuana metabolites were found in their urine.
No one has ever been disqualified for doping dogs. Until the Seavey incident this year, in fact, not a single case of doped Iditarod dogs had been revealed, although multiple Iditaord officials past and present have told craigmedred.news there were previous doping positives. A few mushers contend doping continues and is more common than anyone is willing to admit even if no one talks about it.
The omerta is strong within Iditarod. When an earlier IOFC communique calling on the Iditarod to reveal the name of the then unknown “Musher X” was leaked to craigmedred.news, some IOFC members were outraged.
They argued that someone had committed a serious violation by breaking the IOFC’s simple code: “What happens on the Iditarod Trail stays on the Iditarod Trail.”
The IOFC is so opaque it is not even possible to find a public list off officers. State records indicate the club was first founded in 1985, but dissolved in 1993. It was reformed in 2007 only to be dissolved by the state in October of last year for failing to submit biennial reports.
It appears to have had similar problems at the federal level. Guide Star, a website that tracks charities, says the IOFC registered with the IRS as a non-profit organization in 1991 but “this organization’s exempt status was automatically revoked by the IRS for failure to file a Form 990, 990-EZ, 990-N, or 990-PF for 3 consecutive years. Further investigation and due diligence are warranted.”
But the IOFC isn’t the only ragtag Iditarod-related organization. A review of the ITC conducted by Dennis McMillian of The Foraker Group, a consultancy for non-profit businesses, didn’t give the Iditarod very good marks and warned that the board needs to “adopt a strategy that would, in the future, minimize or exclude a director with a conflict of interest, either as an active musher or one with such immediate relationship.”
It is this issue which is at the heart of the IOFC demand for resignations. IOFC voting members appear concerned some on the board could manipulate rules or drug tests to favor themselves or family members.
Baker from Kotzebue is alleged to have a conflict because his brother, John, is a former winner of the Iditarod who still competes. John won the race in 2011. A year later, he was ninth. But since then he has been an also-ran, finishing from 21st in 2012 to 17th in 2016. He was 18th last year.
Board member Rick Swenson from Two Rivers north of Fairbanks is alleged to have a conflict because he is the race’s only five-time champ. He retired from Iditarod after the 2012 race. At age 68, he is now an Iditarod elder, but that didn’t stop four-time champ Dallas Seavey from suggesting Swenson was engaged in sabotage after the news got out that Seavey was found to have doped dogs.
Doping is illegal, according to Iditarod rules, but the Iditarod did not punish Seavey for his doped team, and it tried to coverup the incident. Seavey, however, alleged that someone in the know in the Fairbanks area leaked his name to a variety of people and that helped increase the public pressure on Iditarod to reveal the name of Musher X. Swenson is the only Iditarod board member in the immediate Fairbanks area.
Board member Mike Jonrowe from Willow is the husband of musher DeeDee Jonrowe, a long time, Iditarod fan favorite. DeeDee was once tagged as the successor to the late Susan Butcher, a once dominant, four-time champ. But DeeDee could never get closer than second in 1993 and again in 1998.
From 1999 on, she was only able to put a team in the top-10 five times, and she was never in contention for victory. In that last several years, she has run with those the Iditarod front runners sometimes denigrated as the BOP, as in back of the pack. DeeDee was 47th last year.
Marrs would appear the board member with the biggest conflict. He is an up-and-coming musher who finished sixth last year.
Board member Aaron Burmeister of Nome is a veteran musher who finished third in the 2015 Iditarod, and then dropped out of competition to help his brother, Noah from Nenana, take a shot at the race. Noah finished the Iditarod 11th in 2016 and won most-improved musher honors, but he fell to 29th last year.
Still, McMillian suggested that “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.”
Dallas has gone so far as to suggest the board might have sabotaged him because he sometimes disagreed with its decisions.
The three board members free of conflicts – in the view of consultant McMillian – are Stan Foo, up until 2016 the president and general manager of Donlin Gold LLC, a major Iditarod sponsor; John Handeland, the manager of Nome Joint Utilities; and Danny Seybert, the CEO of bankrupt PenAir, a small Alaska airline.
PenAir was a longtime Iditarod sponsor in the years before the bankruptcy. It had regular flights serving McGrath in the Interior north of the Alaska Range and Unalakleet on the Bering Sea coast. The two communities are major staging points for Iditarod logistics. PenAir had a vested financial interest in the race’s success. It still flies to McGrath but has dropped Unalkaleet as a destination.
Nome, the city for which Handeland works, is the finish line for the Iditarod and the city has a big financial interest in the race. The Fairbanks Daily News-Miner reported the race generates up to a $1 million in business for the coastal community of only 3,700 people.
Almost everyone on the Iditarod board could be viewed to have some conflict in recent years.
Nome would have plenty of reason to celebrate if one of the Burmeister boys, who were born and reared in Nome, had won. PenAir might have had the least to gain, but who knows what Iditarod outcome it might have thought best for business.
When Libby Riddles became the first woman to win the Iditarod in 1985, the race went from an unknown, backyard affair staged in wild Alaska to an internationally recognized brand. When Butcher followed in the sled runners of Riddles to become the dominate Iditarod force for half a decade, the race rode the slogan of “Alaska: Where Men are Men, and Women Win the Iditarod.”
Who knows what a business-interested member of the board might do to try to ensure another woman winner.
Correction: An earlier version of this story mistakenly listed Donlin as a past sponsors of John Baker.